Animals

Rat Heart Cells Power Robotic Sting Ray

This soft artificial creature contains genetically engineered rat cells so it can be controlled with light pulses.

Part animal, part machine, a tiny new robotic stingray (above, left) contains genetically engineered rat muscle cells that allow its wings to flap in response to light pulses.

Researchers were able to guide the artificial creature through an underwater obstacle course with flashing light alone.

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Bioengineering research associate Sung Jin Park and his colleagues at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering worked with a large international team on the artificial creature. They were inspired by batoid fish-like stingrays (above, right), which have flat bodies and long fins for moving through water using a wavelike motion.

The researchers constructed the artificial creature out of a neutrally charged gold skeleton overlaid with a thin layer of stretchy polymer. Then, in what seems like it could be a movie plot point, they printed 200,000 rat heart cells called cardiomyocytes in a serpentine pattern along the top. Each cell was genetically engineered to respond to light cues.

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Describing the creature today in a Science journal article, the researchers tuned the cells to contract in response to light pulses, causing the wings to flap. Slightly longer than half an inch in size, the creature successfully made it through an underwater obstacle course guided by a flashing light. Park and his colleagues reported that the ray outperformed existing locomotive bio-hybrid systems in terms of speed, distance traveled, and durability.

The biggest question I had about this whole thing is why? The researchers aren't just doing all this for fun -- although guiding the creature around obstacles did look enjoyable. Their aims are bigger. Tissue engineering that controls heart cells like this could lead to better artificial hearts.

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And then there's the possibility of developing smarter artificial creatures that put us on the path to synthetic cognition. Yep, this diminutive artificial animal could open the door to a very wild future.

Get to know them now, since they might be ruling over us one day: