Scientists Build Artificial Tissue-Engineered Jellyfish Named Medusoid

Posted on July 24, 2012


A team of researchers at Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have turned silicone and living rat cardiac muscle cells into a jellyfish-like thing they have named Medusoid.

Study coauthor Kevin Kit Parker, professor of bioengineering and applied physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), says, "It occurred to me in 2007 that we might have failed to understand the fundamental laws of muscular pumps. I started looking at marine organisms that pump to survive. Then I saw a jellyfish at the New England Aquarium and I immediately noted both similarities and differences between how the jellyfish and the human heart pump."

To build Medusoid, Parker collaborated with Janna Nawroth, a doctoral student in biology at Caltech and lead author of the study. They also worked with Nawroth's adviser, John Dabiri, a professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at Caltech and expert in biological propulsion. To reverse engineer a medusa jellyfish, the scientists used analysis tools borrowed from the fields of law enforcement biometrics and crystallography to make maps of the alignment of subcellular protein networks within all of the muscle cells within the animal. They then conducted studies to understand the electrophysiological triggering of jellyfish propulsion.

The scientists discovered that a sheet of cultured rat heart muscle tissue that would contract when electrically stimulated in a liquid environment was the perfect raw material to create an artificial jellyfish. The team then incorporated a silicone polymer that fashions the body of the artificial creature into a thin membrane that resembles a small jellyfish. The scientists were able to quantitatively match the subcellular, cellular, and supracellular architecture of the jellyfish musculature with the rat heart muscle cells. The artificial construct was placed in container of ocean-like salt water and shocked into swimming with synchronized muscle contractions.

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The researchers aim to further evolve Medusoid. They want to make it to turn and move in a particular direction. They also want to give it a simple "brain" so it can respond to its environment and replicate more advanced behaviors like heading toward a light source and seeking energy or food.

The researchers' method for building Medusoid was published in a Nature Biotechnology paper on July 22.

Photo: Harvard University and Caltech