Aug 04, 2016 I Brett Tingley

“Living Machine” Is A Half Sea Slug, Half Robot Hybrid

In the field of bioengineering, new hybrid organisms are becoming a hot topic of study. Just last month, scientists created a robotic “biohybrid” stringray out of heart cells taken from rats. The most recent biohybrid news comes from researchers at Case Western Reserve University, who have published the results of their latest successful attempt to play God (or Victor Frankenstein).

The hybrid organism in this study was created from a special muscle found in the mouths of Aplysia californica sea slugs. The muscle, called the “I2” muscle, controls the opening and closing of the sea slug’s mouth. The muscle has been the topic of several past studies due to the unique neural pathways by which the muscle is controlled; in particular, the muscle’s neural networks consist of only a few neurons, and can respond directly to various forms of stimulation without the need for the central nervous system.

The Alyspia californica sea slug.

Thus, the muscle was chosen as the basis for this newest creepy ‘living’ robot. The muscle in the two-inch hybrid slugbot can be stimulated through electrical pulses, which cause the muscle to contract and expand. The biohybrid moves much like a sea turtle, flapping its weird little slug arms that are 3D-printed out of a special flexible plastic.

The researchers designed the hybrid robot for ocean exploration; similar biohybrid bots could be used to seek out chemical leaks in the ocean, or even look for black box recorders from downed aircraft. According to a press release from Case Western Reserve University, this particular hybrid organism is well-suited for a variety of different aquatic environments thanks to the flexibility of sea slug muscle tissues:

One of the problems with traditional robotics, especially on the small scale, is that actuators—the units that provide movement—tend to be rigid [...] we want the robots to be compliant, to interact with the environment.

The Aplysia genus of sea slugs can adapt to different water temperatures, salinity levels, and water depths, making their cells and tissues perfect for creating living robot hybrids that can be used for ocean exploration all over the world. Researchers are also looking into ways to harvest the collagen cells from sea slugs in order to make a flexible-yet-durable body for future biohybrid organisms.

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The creepy biohybrid sea slug robot, seen here in its natural petri dish habitat.

Are hybrid organisms like this merely interesting toys for scientists, or a glimpse of the next phase of animal evolution? Were these hybrids to be made out of self-replicating nanotech, for example, reproduction might not be out of the realm of possibility. Let’s just hope scientists get this newest phase of toying with nature right - for once.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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