There’s a scene in every version of Frankenstein where Dr. Frankenstein seeks to animate his creation. In the Kenneth Branagh version from the 1990s, he has an inanimate Robert De Niro in a big metal tube, which he then floods with fluid and electricity. And, of course, eventually De Niro starts kicking. The spark of life, right?
Well, I’ve been meaning to post about an interesting bit of bioengineering that was done by teams from Harvard and Caltech that was published earlier this summer in Nature Biotechnology. These researchers have taken silicone and cultured rat heart muscle cells and created a free-swimming jellyfish like thing swims in a manner eerily reminiscent of the prototype animal when a simple electrical pulse is applied. They’ve called it a “medusoid”.
Take a second to watch the video below. The really good stuff starts around the 30 second mark.
I think my favorite part is the comparison between the actual jellyfish and the medusoid. Amazing.
Now, why would someone want to do this? (Other than the fact that it’s unbelievably cool?) The researchers wanted to learn more about tissue engineering and jellyfish presented a great target. Jellyfish are the oldest multi-organ animals on earth having swum the oceans for more than a half billion years and possess a basic structure that seemed possible to emulate. Also the contractions that make a jellyfish swim are very similar to the ones that the mammalian heart has evolved to pump blood, so there are potential medical applications, as well.
In this way, the researchers learn something about the basics of biomaterials, including our own tissues. If successful, the end result of these engineering efforts could be materials like these medusoids that could be used instead of tissue transplants in the future. Pretty cool.
What I couldn’t find out from the paper is whether when they saw the medusoid swimming, someone shouted, “It’s alive!”
I probably would have.