Scientists create biological robotic stingray out of leftovers
A group of bioengineers from Harvard decided to usurp the role of God and create a new lifeform using rat hearts, breast implants, and gold. And to make it just a little bit weirder, they designed it to react to certain types of light.
“Roughly speaking, we made this thing with a pinch of rat cardiac cells, a pinch of breast implant, and a pinch of gold. That pretty much sums it up, except for the genetic engineering,” Kit Parker, the bioengineer at Harvard who led the team told Popular Mechanics.
The robotic stingray is a bizarre new creation that may be a robotic creation, or it may be a new lifeform – it’s not exactly clear. It’s made up of around 200,000 genetically engineered rat heart-muscle cells that contract and expand in something similar to a pumping motion, which gives it movement.
The… thing is just about a half-inch in size and weighs under 10 grams. It was also designed to follow certain types of light, so it can navigate through simple obstacle courses.
“You shine a light, and it triggers the muscles to swim,” said Parker. “You couldn’t replicate this movement with on-board electronics and actuators while keeping it lightweight and maneuverable. And it really is remote controlled, like a TV set.”
The abomination under God is made up of four layers of materials. The first is silicon created in a titanium mold. It is flexible, made to bend and hold the other materials together. Parker describes it as “the same thing as the outer coating of a breast implant.”
The second layer is a thin gold skeleton, added to give the robotic-stingray some recoil in its movement and bounce back to its original shape. The third layer is another piece of silicone added to separate the gold from the rat heart material, and to keep the cells in a specific formation. Finally, the fourth layer consists of the rat cells.
The rat cells are layered onto fins in a serpentine pattern. The cells send signals up and down that cause the muscles to flex. That creates a motion similar to a real stingray.
The creature raises some questions as to whether it is a machine or a lifeform. As no gods have elected to smite the researchers yet, that may be a check in the “robot” category. It also doesn’t help that the robotic-stingray couldn’t exist outside of a sterile liquid. After six weeks, more than 80-percent of the rat cells survived, but it doesn’t have the ability to fight off infection, so it would be destroyed quickly.
Regardless, this is a huge accomplishment – and a very weird one. Both biologists and roboticists can take something away from this. Parker and his team hope it is the first step in creating an artificial heart, while others focusing on robotics view it as a step in using biological cells as building materials. Meanwhile, marine biologists see it as a way to help better understand the stingray. The other two disciplines then probably began to make fun of the marine biologists.
“I think we’ve got a biological life-form here,” said Parker. “A machine, but a biological life form. I wouldn’t call it an organism, because it can’t reproduce, but it certainly is alive.”
And then the lightning came and the researchers were turned to salt.