bionic jellyfish

Bionic jellyfish created to monitor the world’s oceans

Image credit: reuters

Jellyfish are being implanted with microelectronics in the hope they can be used to monitor the world’s oceans.

The Stanford University researchers behind the project said that the use of live jellyfish solves several problems, such as the power requirements needed to move around the ocean and the ability to recover from damage via wound-healing processes that are inherent to the animal.

The researchers equipped the jellyfish with small prosthetics, allowing them to swim three times faster and more efficiently without causing any apparent stress to the animals, which have no brain, central nervous system or pain receptors.

While mechanical soft robots that mimic fish and jellyfish propulsion already exist, the biohybrid system is up to 1,000 times more energy efficient and doesn’t need to be tethered to external power supplies.

Jellyfish are naturally found in a wide range of salinities, temperatures, oxygen concentrations and depths, including at depths of over 3,700m in the Mariana Trench. This makes them one of the best lifeforms for being deployed in different oceans around the world.

The next steps will be to test ways to control where the jellyfish go and develop tiny sensors that could perform long-term measurements of ocean conditions such as temperature, salinity, acidity, oxygen levels, nutrients and microbial communities. They even envision installing miniscule cameras.

“It’s very sci-fi futuristic,” said Nicole Xu, a Stanford University bioengineer and co-author of the research. “We could send these bionic jellyfish to different areas of the ocean to monitor signs of climate change or observe natural phenomena.”

An initial goal will be deep dives because measurements at great depths are a major gap in our understanding of the oceans, added John Dabiri, a California Institute of Technology mechanical engineering professor and the study’s other co-author.

“Basically, we’d release the bionic jellyfish at the surface, have it swim down to increasing depths and see just how far we can get it to go down into the ocean and still make it back to the surface with data,” Dabiri added.

They created a device which attaches to the animal and generates a pulse wave that stimulates muscle contractions in the jellyfish allowing it to move faster than it typically would in nature.

The study involved a common type of the species called Moon Jellyfish and used a prosthetic, 2cm in diameter, that is comprised of a chip, battery and electrodes that stimulate the muscle.

With regards to animal welfare issues, the scientists said that jellyfish are known to secrete mucus when stressed, but no such reaction was observed during the research and the animals swam normally after the prosthetic was removed.

“Care is taken not to harm the jellyfish,” Dabiri said.

There are many existing technologies to study the ocean near the surface, including satellites and robotic sailboats called saildrones, he added.

Our knowledge of the ocean declines at depths greater than about 20m, where researchers must rely either on instruments deployed from ships - costly to operate - or use smaller underwater vehicles typically limited to day-long operation due to energy-storage limitations.

“Jellyfish have existed for over 500 million years and over that time their body structure has remained largely unchanged, so it’s interesting to figure out what makes them so special and how we can learn from them,” Xu said.

“Because we use animals with natural swimming motions, the hope is that they won’t disturb the environment in the same way that a submarine might, so we can expand the types of environments we can monitor.”

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