Scientists create artificial jellyfish out of a rat's heart muscle

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Dec 17, 2012

Take heart muscles from a rat, mix in a little silicone rubber, then drop the whole thing in a tank of salt water and send some electricity through it. Now you've got something that swims like a real jellyfish. But why do it in the first place?

No, scientists didn't conduct this experiment as the first step in the construction of a massive jellyfish army (at least, not that they're telling us). Believe it or not, building an artificial jellyfish out of silicone and rodent cardiac muscles is actually for the good of the human heart. Or at least that's what researchers are hoping for.

"The design of the heart that we have today is by no means the best physically possible design," said John Dabiri, an aeronautics and bioengineering professor at the California Institute of Technology who participated in the experiment. "It is the one that evolution stumbled onto over the course of millions of years of random searching."

The ultimate idea here is to find a way to build an artificial heart that functions better than our natural heart. And since the heart is basically a big pump, scientists are looking for ways to construct better biological pumping technology. Enter the jellyfish, which is basically a big swimming pump, taking in water and shooting it back out again to propel itself through water.

Though they could have used jellyfish muscles in the experiment, the researchers simply found that rat muscles were easier to work with. With a little silicone to put the "jelly" in jellyfish, the team found that the mass (which they called a "Medusoid") behaved much like the real thing when an electrical charge passed through it. Eventually, they even plan to add devices that allow the Medusoid to feed and move on its own, but for now the team is simply considering the implications the research has for future human heart health.

For example, the tissue created in the Medusoid could eventually become part of a biological artificial heart that defies the evolutionary properties of the hearts we have now. For the moment, the Medusoid tissue might be used to test the effect of new heart drugs on cardiac tissue. Either way, weird as it sounds, it could be a big breakthrough for human heart disease.