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Rat muscle + rubbery film = world's first artificial jellyfish (+video)

Researchers say they've created a jellyfish that's one part artificial, one part biological. Creation of the 'pseudo organism' could yield new insights into medical research – or even cleaning up environmental pollution.

By Staff Writer / July 23, 2012

Moon jellyfish are shown in this file photo off the shores of Pompano Beach, Fla. Scientists say the creation of the world's first artificial jellyfish could open new doors for medical and environmental research.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

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Scientists have created the first artificial jellyfish -- a tiny blend of muscle tissue from a rat and thin, rubbery material from Dow Chemical Corporation – but with nary a jellyfish gene to its name.

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Researchers at Harvard and Caltech have bio-engineered an artificial jellyfish using silicone and rat heart cells.

The approaches used to build this "pseudo organism," as the researchers call it, may pave the way for more-effective ways to test new medicines, as well as new ways to repair or replace damaged organs in ways that use a patient's own tissue types – and no batteries for power, the team suggests.

Beyond the therapeutic lie other potential applications. The researchers say over the long term, their work could help lead to roving, autonomous sentinels that can measure pollution plumes in the ocean and perhaps even clean up the mess – while drawing nutrients from the ocean itself.

IN PICTURES: Giant jellyfish

But the development also highlights the blurring line between life as it has evolved on Earth over the past 3.7 billion years and artificial forms that are beginning to emerge from labs, notes Kevin Parker, a physicist at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, in Cambridge, Mass.

Initially, biologists identified organisms and their relationships to other organisms by their shapes and the functions various part of an organism performed. More recently, researchers have used genetics to define those relationships.

Here, looks alone suggest "this thing is a jellyfish, and functionally it's a jellyfish," Dr. Parker says. Yet the faux fish's biological material comes from a rat, so genetically, it's a rat."

"Everyone would agree that this is not an organism, although it's alive," he says. In effect, it's a tiny robot whose movements are controlled by living cells.

Some researchers have tried to mimic nature from the ground up, putting novel forms of DNA into DNA-free cells and activating the cells.

In this case, the research team – led by Dr. Parker and CalTech bioengineer John Dabiri – reverse-engineered a jellyfish's means of moving in the water. They then put the artificial and biological pieces together in the lab to produce a biomachine with the same shape and motions as its natural counterpart.

The results were published Monday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

For years, Parker had been researching ways to use biological engineering to provide better ways to help patients diagnosed with heart disease, he says. On various visits to the New England Aquarium in Boston, he was struck by how similar the symmetrical undulations of a moving jellyfish was to the motions of a beating heart, he recalls.

Meanwhile, Dr. Dabiri gave a talk at Harvard on jellyfish propulsion.

Dabiri "was walking down the hall, and I pulled him over and said: 'Hey, man, I think I can build a jellyfish,' " Parker recalls. "He looked at me like I was off my rocker."

But not too far off, apparently, because a collaboration was born.

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