Scientists create artificial jellyfish from rat heart cells

Using rat heart muscle cells and a thin silicone film, researchers have constructed a swimming jellyfish like creature that can be used to study everything from marine biology to cardiac physiology.

Harvard University and Caltech.
A bioengineered jellyfish mimic swims in ocean-like saltwater. Researchers reported the creation of this artificial jellyfish on Sunday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Using rat heart cells and silicone polymer, researchers have bioengineered a "jellyfish" that knows how to swim.

The odd jellyfish mimic, dubbed a "Medusoid" by its creators, is more than a curiosity. It's a natural biological pump, just like the human heart. That makes it a good model to use to study cardiac physiology, said study researcher Kevin Kit Parker, a bioengineer at Harvard University.

"The idea is to look at a muscular pump other than the heart or other muscular organ and see if there are some fundamental similarities, or design principles, that are conserved across them," Parker told LiveScience. "This study revealed that there are." [10 Amazing Facts About Your Heart]

Building a jelly

Jellyfish propel themselves with a pumping action, as anyone who has ever watched them float around an aquarium tank can attest. Parker was looking for a way to tackle questions about the heart that aren't well understood when he saw some jellyfish in a display in 2007.

"I thought, 'I can build this,'" he said.

The ingredients were rat heart muscle cells and a thin silicone film. ("The world needs less rats and more jellyfish, so I thought it would be cool to do a one-for-one swap," Parker joked.) Along with researchers from the California Institute of Technology, he and his team engineered the cells and silicone in a pattern that mimicked the structure of a real jellyfish. They then stuck the creature in a tank full of electrically conducting fluid and zapped it with current.

The result was a swimming, pulsating creature that acts not unlike a real jellyfish (without the eating and reproducing, of course).

Jellyfish for tissue engineering

These artificial jellies can solve different problems for different scientists, Parker said. A marine biologist might learn more about the architecture of a jellyfish and how it swims. A comparative biologist can compare the pumping action of the Medusoid to that of the heart. For tissue engineers, the exercise was a lesson in design and quality control. And for biological proponent experts, the system is a model that mimics how real propulsive swimmers do it.

Parker is interested in using the Medusoids for cardiovascular drug development and as a step in new designs for artificial hearts. He also has plans to go bigger.

The next step, he said, is to "pick another animal that has a more difficult anatomy and function, and build it. Give me a year or two!"

Parker and his colleagues report their results today (July 22) in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.