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Web Date: July 25, 2012

Building A Jellyfish

Biomimetics: Researchers use polymer sheet, protein, and heart cells to replicate the swim stroke of the marine animal
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Critter Chemistry
News Channels: Materials SCENE, Biological SCENE
Keywords: biomimetics, tissue engineering, jellyfish, medusoid
Researchers at Caltech and Harvard have made a polymer sheet that swims like a jellyfish. In this video, Janna Nawroth, a graduate student at Caltech, explains what inspired the team and talks about how the researchers optimized their design with a printed protein and some rat heart cells.
Credit: Janna Nawroth/C&EN/YouTube

The list of creatures that have inspired scientists to build synthetic, or biomimetic, devices just got longer, according to a report in Nature Biotechnology (DOI: 10.1038/nbt.2269).

John O. Dabiri of Caltech, Kevin Kit Parker of Harvard University, and coworkers have engineered a thin, eight-armed polymeric sheet to swim like a jellyfish. To accomplish the feat, the team mapped the pumping motions of a juvenile jellyfish while it was swimming. Then the researchers used the collected information to build a mimic from three simple components, says Janna C. Nawroth, a graduate student at Caltech and lead author of the report.

The first of these parts is a spin-coated 22-µm-thick polydimethylsiloxane film. Onto that layer, the team printed the protein fibronectin in a pattern simulating jellyfish muscle-fiber alignment. Finally, the researchers seeded rat heart cells onto the structure and incubated them until they formed electrically conductive tissue.

Tissue-engineered jellyfish (right) are stripped-down, polymeric versions of the real thing (left).
Credit: Nat. Biotechnol. (left) Harvard U & Caltech (right)
Images of tissue-engineered jellyfish.
Tissue-engineered jellyfish (right) are stripped-down, polymeric versions of the real thing (left).
Credit: Nat. Biotechnol. (left) Harvard U & Caltech (right)

The resulting mimic, called a medusoid, swims like a jellyfish when exposed to a pulsed electrical field. Aside from being a model system to inspire the development of future tissue-engineered pumping organs, Nawroth says, these medusoids might eventually be used to test drugs for cardiac disease.

“This is a brilliant study and is impressive in its ingenuity, the smart and clear design, and the scrutiny of mathematical, physical and biochemical methods applied,” says Klaus von der Mark, an expert in regenerative medicine at Germany’s University of Erlangen-Nürnburg. The bioinspired approach the team used to engineer such microdevices capable of propelling through fluids, he adds, “may have enormous potential in medicine, pharmacology, microengineering, and other fields.”

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