Robotic Biohybrid Stingray – Part Animal, Part Machine

by Sankalan Baidya

Robotic Biohybrid Stingray. Okay that name has at least two known parts – robotic and stingray. What the hell is biohybrid? Straight out of sci-fi movies, it is an actual robot that resembles a stingray but has animal parts. Real animal parts! Yes, it is part animal and part robot. It is the first of its kind.

What really is Robotic Biohybrid Stingray?

The Robotic Biohybrid Stingray is a brainchild of Harvard scientists. What they did is they took some living cells from the hearts of rats and used them to make this unique – whatever it is! Actually, it is a stingray – a robotic one that has living cells. It is capable of swimming exactly the way a stingray swims. It however cannot reproduce and it cannot eat. What the real animal parts can do is it can react to lights. So basically, it is a new level of bioengineering as said in the published report.

A bit more about Robotic Biohybrid Stingray

According to Kit Parker, the head researcher of the project, the Robotic Biohybrid Stingray is a new class of hybrid. It is not an organism because it ain’t capable of reproducing. However, it is very much alive. The robot is tiny and is made of silicone, gold and heart muscle cells that have been genetically engineered.

The movement of the robot can be controlled using light. This method of light-guided movement is known as optogenetics. It is true that different positions of light and different amplitudes of light can be used for making the robot move. However, the fun factor is that the movement is not actually controlled by scientists. It is actually in response to external stimulus (in this case, light).

A bit about optogenetics in Robotic Biohybrid Stingray

According to the creators of this creature, optogenetics is used for phototactic guidance. It allows for turning maneuvers and steering. The creature has muscle circuits that are placed in serpentine pattern. When optical stimulation is provided, muscles are activated sequentially. This allows for coordinated wave like or undulatory swimming. By controlling the light frequency, the direction and speed of the Robotic Biohybrid Stingray was controlled. When the left and the right fins were evoked separately, it allowed the robotic ray to maneuver through a deliberately designed obstacle course.

Robotic Biohybrid Stingray

How was the Robotic Biohybrid Stingray made?

This is where it gets interesting. The creation of the Robotic Biohybrid Stingray took place in four layers. The first layer was the translucent body structure. For this, the scientists used the silicone used in breast implants. The structure was made using 3D printing and because of the material used, translucency and flexibility was achieved.

The second layer is the gold skeleton. The skeleton has been designed to have enough resistance so that it can get back to its original shape after the fins of the ray move in wave-like pattern.

Then comes the third layer. It is again a silicone layer just like the first one. It is translucent and flexible.

The final layer is where everything gets interesting about the Robotic Biohybrid Stingray. This layer is made of living cells that have been genetically engineered. The cells come from the heart muscles of rats. The reason why the heart was chosen is that heart undulates in rhythmic pattern in response to a stimulus. So, the cells taken from heart muscles will do the same. In this case, genetic engineering was done to ensure that the cells respond to light.

Robotic Biohybrid Stingray

The cells were engineered only to respond to specific frequencies and wavelengths of light. When the wavelengths and frequencies are altered, the speed and direction of the Robotic Biohybrid Stingray changes.

Keeping the Robotic Biohybrid Stingray alive

Though it is a robot, the Robotic Biohybrid Stingray is still very much alive – thanks to the cells of heart muscles of rats. Now, living cells die. So, if the cells die, the robotic ray will die. It is therefore necessary to keep the cells alive.

This was achieved by creating a nutrient bath that was specifically designed to maintain the temperature of a rat’s body. This creepy stingray lives in that nutrient bath. It has been alive for last 6 weeks. There is one problem. The robotic ray has not immune system and hence, its survival in the wild is questionable. Scientists are yet to do a lot of experiments to ensure the survival of the Robotic Biohybrid Stingray in a natural environment where microbes will invariably attack the cells.

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