La méduse de l’espèce Aurelia aurita, ou méduse lune. // Source : Pixabay

– 02 February 2020 – Science

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  • Scientists have created “cyborg jellyfish”, but for what purpose?

A team from Caltech and Stanford University integrated a prosthesis into jellyfish, multiplying their speed by electrical impulses. That’s a funny idea. Does it cross the red line of living experiments?

Jellyfish are, by nature, a species with many fascinating abilities. They dot the oceans, within which they move with disconcerting ease. What if they were to help us explore the oceans? On Wednesday, January 29, 2020, a study published in Science Advances details an astonishing experiment: researchers at Caltech and Stanford University created “cyborg jellyfish,” that is, bionic jellyfish.

These researchers integrated a microelectronic prosthesis under the belly of several specimens of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita). The device works with a lithium battery and a microprocessor. It “controls” the swimming of jellyfish by means of small electrical impulses sent into muscle tissue. The prosthesis is not directly inserted into the body of the jellyfish: it is a small box, held by a wooden pin and the two electrodes.

La méduse de l’espèce Aurelia aurita, ou méduse lune. // Source : Pixabay

The jellyfish of the species Aurelia aurita, or moon jellyfish // Source : Pixabay

This description of the process is not without immediately giving rise to some ethical reflections. In an appendix, the research team is careful to specify that jellyfish are “invertebrate animals without a central nervous system or nociceptors [sensory pain receptor] reported“. Jellyfish don’t have brains either. The researchers “took steps” to ensure “that no unnecessary tissue damage occurs during the experiments. For example, the only known stress response of jellyfish is the production of mucus, and researchers say that the use of the bionic prosthesis has not produced any.

A greener idea or an unethical idea?

On the jellyfish tested, it was found that the device was able to triple their speed, well beyond what they could naturally reach. This increased speed results in only twice the usual metabolic expenditure for jellyfish – which also means that not much energy has to be put into the impulses for them to have the desired effect.

The research team wants to continue developing their idea of “biohybrid robots“. Among the projects: to influence where jellyfish go, but also to integrate cameras and sensors so that they record, in passing, many measurements on their environment (temperature, salinity, nutrients…). According to the authors of the experiment, there are two concrete applications to their work: improving the hybridization between robotics and living things and improving the study of the oceans.

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It is true that jellyfish have lived in the oceans for 500 million years. Exploring the oceans in this way is much “cleaner” than using a submarine or underwater drones. That said, the ethical arguments of the researchers remain unconvincing: jellyfish are a form of life and influencing their movements with electrical impulses is not far from crossing the red line – if it hasn’t already done so.