Advancements in cybernetic organisms (popularly known as cyborgs) continue to blur the line between the organic and mechanical each day, inexorably propelling us into a future that promises radically changed definitions of man, animal, and machine.
Today is no exception: a team of scientists led by Kit Parker of Harvard University have published an article in Science heralding the arrival of a stingray-inspired swimming robot that is powered by rat heart cells. Combining advances in engineering, genetics, biomechanics, and cell culture, this “living” robot is no doubt a technical marvel.
This biohybrid ray is a 1/10th scale miniature of a live stingray (about the size of a nickel). It has a microfabricated gold skeleton and runs on 200,000 rat heart cells called cardiomyocytes that have been genetically engineered to respond to light cues.
The photosensitive heart cells respond when exposed to light, collectively causing the fins to contract in a downward motion. That is to say, this cyborg stingray has been programmed to follow light sources, eerily mimicking the undulating fin movements of a stingray. Varying pulses and frequencies of light can guide the speed and direction of the ray-bot.
Kit Parker has built this tissue-engineered ray in the hopes of eventually constructing a human heart. But his inspiration came from an unlikely source: taking his daughter to the New England Aquarium.
He recounted the story of how seeing his daughter attempting to pet an evasive stingray gave him the idea of fabricating a cyborg version in an interview with Gizmodo: “It struck me like a thunderbolt that I could build that system in the musculature, and that it would look very much like the [muscular] layer of the heart.”
Parker hopes that by developing a cybernetic stingray using rat heart cells, he can gain deeper insights into the workings of the human heart and eventually engineer one.