The popular science media are abuzz over the creation by scientists of a synthetic jellyfish, called a medusoid, using silicone and a rat’s heart muscle cells (Nawroth et al., 2012). Explains Nature News, “When placed in an electric field, it pulses and swims exactly like its living counterpart.”
The authors of the study examined the tissue layout and dynamics of motion of the common moon jelly (Aurelia aurita) and created a jellyfish-like frame using a silicone polymer, on which they grew a layer of rat heart muscle.
Applying an electric field across the synthetic organism results in contraction of the muscle, paralleling the power stroke of a jellyfish. The medusoid structure subsequently returns to its initial state, and the cycle repeats (see the above video to watch the action for yourself!).
The Nature News report explains,
When placed between two electrodes in water, the medusoid swam like the real thing. It even produced water currents similar to those that wash food particles into jellyfish’s mouths. “We thought if we’re really good at this, we’re going to recreate that vortex, and we did,” says Parker. “We took a rat apart and rebuilt it as a jellyfish.”
The research paper, published in Nature, states,
Reverse engineering of biological form and function requires hierarchical design over several orders of space and time. Recent advances in the mechanistic understanding of biosynthetic compound materials, computer-aided design approaches in molecular synthetic biology and traditional soft robotics, and increasing aptitude in generating structural and chemical microenvironments that promote cellular self-organization have enhanced the ability to recapitulate such hierarchical architecture in engineered biological systems. Here we combined these capabilities in a systematic design strategy to reverse engineer a muscular pump. We report the construction of a freely swimming jellyfish from chemically dissociated rat tissue and silicone polymer as a proof of concept. The constructs, termed “medusoids,” were designed with computer simulations and experiments to match key determinants of jellyfish propulsion and feeding performance by quantitatively mimicking structural design, stroke kinematics and animal-fluid interactions. The combination of the engineering design algorithm with quantitative benchmarks of physiological performance suggests that our strategy is broadly applicable to reverse engineering of muscular organs or simple life forms that pump to survive. [internal citations omitted]
Proponents of ID have long pointed out that engineers can utilize a common structure to serve similar purposes across different organisms. The components of the medusoid derived from rat heart muscle would consistently group together with rats on a phylogenetic tree. But of course we know that this synthetic creature did not share a common ancestor with rats at all. In fact, it was designed quite separately albeit using certain tissues from a rat.