Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Medusoids on the March!

Scientists at Harvard University and Caltech have engineered an artificial jellyfish, shown here 'swimming' in a container of ocean-like salt water, using rat heart cells and silicone. The color and contrast in the image have been digitally enhanced.
Image of the artificial jellyfish created by researchers at CalTech and Harvard University

Well, not quite a march of Medusoids, but how about one? The product, shown above, is actually about 1 centimeter (2.54 cm = 1 inch) across and was created by the researchers printing a pattern of protein (using cells from the heart muscle of a rat) onto a silicon (polymer) base.

The object was actually not to simply create an artificial life form, but rather to provide an active "living" substrate by which the action of a mammalian heart muscle could be observed. Hence, by understanding the action of the heart as a pump at the cellular level the researchers might better see how the action pertains to human heart disease. (For example, assorted arrythmias which still aren't fully understood).

In the case of the Medusoid shown, when set free in a container of sea water, its muscles could be jolted into action with a small electric charge to produce synchronized contractions allowing the artificial critter to swim. (Human heart arrythmias are generally triggered by one or more asynchronous contractions of heart muscle.)

Technically then, if synchronized action can be maintained in such an artificial form, then it is feasible that we can help design and build better artificial hearts.

The work, reported in Nature Biotechnology,  may appear to have been exceedingly simple- and hence taken a short time, but in fact it took nearly four years for Kevin Kit Parker of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences along with John Dabri of Caltech and his Ph.D student Janna Nawroth to build Mr. Medusoid.

By the way, the name was chosen because jellyfish (like the 1/2 cm long 'Sea lice" in Barbados, which sting like holy hell) are sometimes called medusae because their tentacles resemble the snakes on the head of the mythical creature in Greek lore.

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