Half sea creature, half robot—a motorized jellyfish seems like a fanciful storybook being or a bizarre sci-fi accident. Yet researchers in California have battery-boosted a real-life marine animal. They hope someday to remote control it—all in the name of collecting (really) deep data.
“We’re trying to take the best of what biology does naturally and combine it with the best of what we can do as engineers,” says John Dabiri. He is a professor of Aeronautics and Bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology.
Jellyfish are free-swimming invertebrates. Besides having no backbones, they also lack brains, lungs, and central nervous systems. “These animals are 95% water,” says Dabiri. He adds, “It’s kind of like poking your finger in Jell-O.” So the sea creatures didn’t feel a thing during the poking that turned them into robo-jellies.
First, researchers created a device similar to a pacemaker. (A heart pacemaker is the size of a small cookie implanted under the skin. Wire leads carry tiny electric pulses to trigger heartbeats.) The penny-sized jellyfish gadget is even smaller. It holds a microchip and a battery. The scientists attached the device to the bellies of common jellyfishes. Then they ran fine wires to electrodes elsewhere on the animals.
As the device pulsed, these “biohybrid robots” received electric jolts. The shocks made the jellies swim faster. Scientists measured how much oxygen the animals consumed during their speed swims. Results revealed that the juiced jellies used only two times more energy than normal—while tripling their speed.
“This reveals that jellyfish possess an untapped ability for faster, more efficient swimming,” graduate student Nicole Xu says. “They just don’t usually have a reason to do so.”
Scientists now want to engineer devices to steer the jellyfish so that they can collect data with them. These adapted jellies could be used to easily and inexpensively explore the ocean depths.
Researchers have placed tracking equipment on large ocean animals like sea turtles and great white sharks for decades. But blending electronics and living flesh to change how an animal moves is new.
Kakani Katija is principal engineer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. She values ocean exploration. But she also sees a difference between sticking a sensor on an animal’s side and changing its basic behavior. Katija calls the difference an “ethical tightrope.”
Tackling questions of morality and ethics is important. It’s worth trying to determine what God wants. (Romans 12:2)
Hank Greely is an ethics expert. He says, “There is something [disturbing] about mechanically changing animals for our [use].” He continues, “Is it wrong, is it right? I don’t know, but I am confident we will face these kinds of questions more and more often.”
What do you think God’s thoughts are about “biohybrid robots”?