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SYFY WIRE Ocean Exploration

Jolted jellyfish with a robot twist could speed up deep sea exploration

By Benjamin Bullard
An underwater jellyfish

If we’re ever going to get to the bottom of Earth’s most unexplored reaches, we’re gonna have to get a move on. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates there’s still more than 80 percent of the deep sea that remains unmapped, and if we rely on people to do the job, well — it’s going to take a while.

That’s why science is devising ways to tap the power of the sea itself — or in this case, its native fauna — to move the process along. In a somewhat shocking, yet totally ethical (researchers promise) innovation, scientists are equipping jellyfish with an electrifying augment that jolts them into a sort of fast-forward overdrive, allowing them to course through the waters at up to three times their normal pace. 

Why do that? Well, if the enigmatic creatures can be further outfitted with sensory gear that allows them to map their surroundings (think Google Street view, except less methodical and, well, with jellyfish), it’s a way to begin filling in all those mysterious underwater blank spots that, for centuries, have made ocean cartography a speculative horror genre unto itself. 

In a paper recently published in the journal ScienceAdvances, researchers at Stanford and the California Institute of Technology describe how they came up with a way to speed up the marine marauders without causing them any observable harm — despite the fact that it requires a constant series of synthetic electric shocks to rev their metabolic motors faster. Using a small device only 2 cm in diameter, the team was able to increase movement speed of the jellyfish threefold by delivering small, continuous zaps of electricity in a fashion not all that different from the way a pacemaker affects a human heart. 

Attached by means of “a wooden pin that embeds into the bell center” of the animal, the microelectronic devices essentially accelerates the frequency of the same pulsating electrical stimuli that jellyfish already use. The researchers note that the jellyfish (which lack pain nerve pathways in the first place) never exhibited any of the telltale signs of stress while outfitted with the devices, and that removing the stimulus left them none the worse for wear, as they reverted to their natural behaviors once the zappers were removed. 

A big next step, of course, is to figure out a way to tell these souped-up jellyfish where to go. Future studies should “strive to arrest endogenous animal contractions without harm to the organisms, to improve the controllability of biohybrid robots that use live animals,” the report states. “…Nevertheless, the artificial control of jellyfish has the potential to expand ocean monitoring techniques, and future iterations of the biohybrid robotic jellyfish can improve controllability, incorporate microelectronic sensors, and leverage existing tagging technology.”

Even if science hasn’t quite reached the point where people can drone-pilot jellyfish to the precise undersea location of their choosing, there’s still plenty of value in winding them up and turning them loose to chart the ocean’s nether reaches without a compass. “[T]his biohybrid robot uses 10 to 1000 times less external power per mass” than man-made robots tasked with plumbing the ocean depths, according to the paper…so at least we’ll be saving some gas money while we’re slowly filling in the blanks.