Researchers have now created silicone and living cardiac muscle cells into a freely swimming “jellyfish,” thanks to advances in marine bio-mechanics, materials science, and tissue engineering. The finding serves as a proof of concept for reverse engineering a variety of muscular organs and simple life forms. It also suggests a broader definition of what counts as synthetic life in an emerging field that has primarily focused on replicating life's building blocks. Researchers from the Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) pioneered the method for building the tissue-engineered jellyfish, dubbed “Medusoid,” the journal Nature Biotechnology reported.
An expert in cell- and tissue-powered actuators, study co-author Kevin Kit Parker from Harvard has previously demonstrated bio-engineered constructs that can grip, pump, and even walk. The inspiration to raise the bar and mimic a jellyfish came out of his own frustration with the state of the cardiac field, said an university statement. Similar to the way a human heart moves blood throughout the body, jellyfish propel themselves through the water by pumping.
In figuring out how to take apart and then rebuild the primary motor function of a jellyfish, the aim was to gain new insights into how such pumps really worked.” It occurred to me in 2007 that we might have failed to understand the fundamental laws of muscular pumps,” said Parker, professor of bioengineering and applied physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “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 the Medusoid, Parker collaborated with Janna Nawroth, doctoral student in biology at Caltech who led the study. They also worked with Nawroth's adviser, John Dabiri, a professor of aeronautics and bio-engineering at Caltech, who is an expert in biological propulsion. It turned out that jellyfish, believed to be the oldest multi-organ animal in the world, were an ideal subject, as they use muscles to pump their way through water, and their basic morphology is similar to that of a beating human heart.