Scientists have built a cyborg stingray that swims around using solar-powered heart cells. From futuristic medical devices to synthetic animals, this coin-sized critter has plenty of potential.
Technically known as a “soft robot”, it is comprised of a gold skeleton that is coated with a highly flexible polymer, which is a proxy for a real stingray’s “skin". Its internal muscles are made of 200,000 genetically-engineered, light-sensitive rat heart cells known as photovoltaic cardiomyocytes.
When these layered cells are exposed to light, they are briefly charged and they contract. This causes the polymer skin to move inwards, which allows the cyborg to swim. The gold skeleton stores some of this energy as the fins contract, which is later released, causing the cells to relax and move back upwards.
Although it can’t yet swim around by itself, it is by its nature designed to respond to the presence of light. So when anyone shines an asymmetric light on it, the cardiomyocytes experiencing the most energetic part of the light source contract, making it swim in that specific direction. The higher the frequency of light – and thus, the more energetic the light – the faster the cyborg swims.
Part animal, part machine. Science Magazine via YouTube
In order to test how precise this locomotion method was, the team guided the cyborg stingray through a labyrinthine obstacle course. As described in their Science paper, it managed this with ease.
The international team behind this marvelous creation was led by Kevin Kit Parker, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. They’ve previously developed a cyborg jellyfish that also used cardiomyocytes, but its locomotive abilities are relatively simple compared to the stingray’s.
Parker’s team are working on developing a marine animal that’s even more complicated, but as he told New Scientist: “You’ll have to wait to find out what it is.”
Hello there, little guy! Karaghen Hudson and Michael Rosnach