Robotic Stingray Photo by Karaghin Hudson

Robotic Stingray Photo by Karaghin Hudson

Looking into the future can be weird, especially when it involves embedding rat heart cells onto a rubber stingray so you can control it with light.

Scientist Kit Parker has just bought this bizarre idea to life, literally. Using gold, some rubber and about 200,000 rat heart muscle cells, he has created a bionic, light powered stingray.

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One tenth of the size of a normal stingray, this cyborg creature of the deep moves when the cells along the edge of its sides are stimulated by light, in a way similar to the way in which a sting ray moves through the water, the sides of its body rippling to propel it forward.

making of cyborg stingray Photo Karaghin Hudson and Michael Rosnach

making of cyborg stingray Photo Karaghin Hudson and Michael Rosnach

The idea came to Parker when visiting an aquarium, where he noticed the way the stingrays were moving elegantly yet quickly through the water.

‘It struck me like a thunderbolt’ says Parker. ‘I could build that layer in the musculature and that it would look very much like the [muscular] layer of the heart.

But how is a robotic stingray constructed? Two thin pieces of rubber are cut out into small stingray shapes using a titanium mold. A gold skeleton sits between these two layers and the rat heart muscle cells are seeded onto the sides or ‘fins’ of the creation.

"My building material is alive"

Algae is the key to administering control over the rat heart cells. A gene from protein found in algae has been found to respond to a technique of light control commonly referred to as optogenetics. When the rat cells are genetically modified to include this protein, they will be activated when exposed to light, propelling the bionic ray into movement.

cyborg jellyfish

cyborg jellyfish

This is not Parker’s first synthetic life form. In 2012 scientists at Caltech and Harvard teamed up to create what they ended up calling a ‘medusoid’ which might sound like a robot from greek mythology, but is actually a robotic jellyfish, bought to 'life' with the same rat heart cells.

Rather than being controlled by light, these were controlled by an electric current that pulsed through the water, shocking the jelly robot fish into movement that is strikingly similar to its fully biological counterpart. This was nearly impossible to control, however, and so the sting-borg was born. ‘My building material is alive’ admits Parker.

Manta Ray - Palau, Micronesia

Manta Ray - Palau, Micronesia

Eventually these creations will pave the way to helping Parker understand exactly how replicated heart cells act, in the hope of one day recreating a human heart.

Parker is now working on a new marine bot creation but is not letting on to what it might be.

When pressed for further detail he simply said ‘You’ll have to wait to find out what it is’

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