Tag Archives: jellyfish

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself?

It must have been quite the conference. Josiah Zayner plunged a needle into himself and claimed to have changed his DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) while giving his talk. (*Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.*) From an Oct. 10, 2017 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

“What we’ve got here is some DNA, and this is a syringe,” Josiah Zayner tells a room full of synthetic biologists and other researchers. He fills the needle and plunges it into his skin. “This will modify my muscle genes and give me bigger muscles.”

Zayner, a biohacker–basically meaning he experiments with biology in a DIY lab rather than a traditional one–was giving a talk called “A Step-by-Step Guide to Genetically Modifying Yourself With CRISPR” at the SynBioBeta conference in San Francisco, where other presentations featured academics in suits and the young CEOs of typical biotech startups. Unlike the others, he started his workshop by handing out shots of scotch and a booklet explaining the basics of DIY [do-it-yourwelf] genome engineering.

If you want to genetically modify yourself, it turns out, it’s not necessarily complicated. As he offered samples in small baggies to the crowd, Zayner explained that it took him about five minutes to make the DNA that he brought to the presentation. The vial held Cas9, an enzyme that snips DNA at a particular location targeted by guide RNA, in the gene-editing system known as CRISPR. In this case, it was designed to knock out the myostatin gene, which produces a hormone that limits muscle growth and lets muscles atrophy. In a study in China, dogs with the edited gene had double the muscle mass of normal dogs. If anyone in the audience wanted to try it, they could take a vial home and inject it later. Even rubbing it on skin, Zayner said, would have some effect on cells, albeit limited.

Peters goes on to note that Zayner has a PhD in molecular biology and biophysics and worked for NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Zayner’s Wikipedia entry fills in a few more details (Note: Links have been removed),

Zayner graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in biophysics in 2013. He then spent two years as a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center,[2] where he worked on Martian colony habitat design. While at the agency, Zayner also analyzed speech patterns in online chat, Twitter, and books, and found that language on Twitter and online chat is closer to how people talk than to how they write.[3] Zayner found NASA’s scientific work less innovative than he expected, and upon leaving in January 2016, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide CRISPR kits to let the general public experiment with editing bacterial DNA. He also continued his grad school business, The ODIN, which sells kits to let the general public experiment at home. As of May 2016, The ODIN had four employees and operates out of Zayner’s garage.[2]

He refers to himself as a biohacker and believes in the importance in letting the general public participate in scientific experimentation, rather than leaving it segregated to labs.[2][4][1] Zayner found the biohacking community exclusive and hierarchical, particularly in the types of people who decide what is “safe”. He hopes that his projects can let even more people experiment in their homes. Other scientists responded that biohacking is inherently privileged, as it requires leisure time and money, and that deviance from the safety rules of concern would lead to even harsher regulations for all.[5] Zayner’s public CRISPR kit campaign coincided with wider scrutiny over genetic modification. Zayner maintained that these fears were based on misunderstandings of the product, as genetic experiments on yeast and bacteria cannot produce a viral epidemic.[6][7] In April 2015, Zayner ran a hoax on Craigslist to raise awareness about the future potential of forgery in forensics genetics testing.[8]

In February 2016, Zayner performed a full body microbiome transplant on himself, including a fecal transplant, to experiment with microbiome engineering and see if he could cure himself from gastrointestinal and other health issues. The microbiome from the donors feces successfully transplanted in Zayner’s gut according to DNA sequencing done on samples.[2] This experiment was documented by filmmakers Kate McLean and Mario Furloni and turned into the short documentary film Gut Hack.[9]

In December 2016, Zayner created a fluorescent beer by engineering yeast to contain the green fluorescent protein from jellyfish. Zayner’s company, The ODIN, released kits to allow people to create their own engineered fluorescent yeast and this was met with some controversy as the FDA declared the green fluorescent protein can be seen as a color additive.[10] Zayner, views the kit as a way that individual can use genetic engineering to create things in their everyday life.[11]

I found the video for Zayner’s now completed crowdfunding campaign,

I also found The ODIN website (mentioned in the Wikipedia essay) where they claim to be selling various gene editing and gene engineering kits including the CRISPR editing kits mentioned in Peters’ article,

In 2016, he [Zayner] sold $200,000 worth of products, including a kit for yeast that can be used to brew glowing bioluminescent beer, a kit to discover antibiotics at home, and a full home lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. In 2017, he expects to double sales. Many kits are simple, and most buyers probably aren’t using the supplies to attempt to engineer themselves (many kits go to classrooms). But Zayner also hopes that as people using the kits gain genetic literacy, they experiment in wilder ways.

Zayner sells a full home biohacking lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. [Photo: The ODIN]

He questions whether traditional research methods, like randomized controlled trials, are the only way to make discoveries, pointing out that in newer personalized medicine (such as immunotherapy for cancer, which is personalized for each patient), a sample size of one person makes sense. At his workshop, he argued that people should have the choice to self-experiment if they want to; we also change our DNA when we drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes or breathe in dirty city air. Other society-sanctioned activities are more dangerous. “We sacrifice maybe a million people a year to the car gods,” he said. “If you ask someone, ‘Would you get rid of cars?’–no.” …

US researchers both conventional and DIY types such as Zayner are not the only ones who are editing genes. The Chinese study mentioned in Peters’ article was written up in an Oct. 19, 2015 article by Antonio Regalado for the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),

Scientists in China say they are the first to use gene editing to produce customized dogs. They created a beagle with double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a gene called myostatin.

The dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications,” Liangxue Lai, a researcher with the Key Laboratory of Regenerative Biology at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, said in an e-mail.

Lai and 28 colleagues reported their results last week in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, saying they intend to create dogs with other DNA mutations, including ones that mimic human diseases such as Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy. “The goal of the research is to explore an approach to the generation of new disease dog models for biomedical research,” says Lai. “Dogs are very close to humans in terms of metabolic, physiological, and anatomical characteristics.”

Lai said his group had no plans breed to breed the extra-muscular beagles as pets. Other teams, however, could move quickly to commercialize gene-altered dogs, potentially editing their DNA to change their size, enhance their intelligence, or correct genetic illnesses. A different Chinese Institute, BGI, said in September it had begun selling miniature pigs, created via gene editing, for $1,600 each as novelty pets.

People have been influencing the genetics of dogs for millennia. By at least 36,000 years ago, early humans had already started to tame wolves and shape the companions we have today. Charles Darwin frequently cited dog breeding in The Origin of Species to demonstrate how evolution gradually occurs by a process of selection. With CRISPR, however, evolution is no longer gradual or subject to chance. It is immediate and under human control.

It is precisely that power that is stirring wide debate and concern over CRISPR. Yet at least some researchers think that gene-edited dogs could put a furry, friendly face on the technology. In an interview this month, George Church, a professor at Harvard University who leads a large effort to employ CRISPR editing, said he thinks it will be possible to augment dogs by using DNA edits to make them live longer or simply make them smarter.

Church said he also believed the alteration of dogs and other large animals could open a path to eventual gene editing of people. “Germline editing of pigs or dogs offers a line into it,” he said. “People might say, ‘Hey, it works.’ ”

In the meantime, Zayner’s ideas are certainly thought provoking. I’m not endorsing either his products or his ideas but it should be noted that early science pioneers such as Humphrey Davy and others experimented on themselves. For anyone unfamiliar with Davy, (from the Humphrey Davy Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet PRS MRIA FGS (17 December 1778 – 29 May 1829) was a Cornish chemist and inventor,[1] who is best remembered today for isolating a series of substances for the first time: potassium and sodium in 1807 and calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium and boron the following year, as well as discovering the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He also studied the forces involved in these separations, inventing the new field of electrochemistry. Berzelius called Davy’s 1806 Bakerian Lecture On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity[2] “one of the best memoirs which has ever enriched the theory of chemistry.”[3] He was a Baronet, President of the Royal Society (PRS), Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA), and Fellow of the Geological Society (FGS). He also invented the Davy lamp and a very early form of incandescent light bulb.

Canadian content*

A Nov. 11, 2017 posting on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Quirks and Quarks blog notes that self-experimentation has a long history and goes on to describe Zayner’s and others biohacking exploits before describing the legality of biohacking in Canada,

With biohackers entering into the space traditionally held by scientists and clinicians, it begs questions. Professor Timothy Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health, law and policy at the University of Alberta, says when he hears of somebody giving themselves biohacked gene therapy, he wonders: “Is this legal? Is this safe? And if it’s not safe, is there anything that we can do about regulating it? And to be honest with you that’s a tough question and I think it’s an open question.”

In Canada, Caulfield says, Health Canada focuses on products. “You have to have something that you are going to regulate or you have to have something that’s making health claims. So if there is a product that is saying I can cure X, Y, or Z, Health Canada can say, ‘Well let’s make sure the science really backs up that claim.’ The problem with these do-it-yourself approaches is there isn’t really a product. You know these people are experimenting on themselves with something that may or may not be designed for health purposes.”

According to Caufield, if you could buy a gene therapy kit that was being marketed to you to biohack yourself, that would be different. “Health Canada could jump in. But right here that’s not the case,” he says.

There are places in the world that do regulate biohacking, says Caulfield. “Germany, for example, they have specific laws for it. And here in Canada we do have a regulatory framework that says that you cannot do gene therapy that will alter the germ line. In other words, you can’t do gene therapy or any kind of genetic editing that will create a change that you will pass on to your offspring. So that would be illegal, but that’s not what’s happening here. And I don’t think there’s a regulatory framework that adequately captures it.”

Infectious disease and policy experts aren’t that concerned yet about the possibility of a biohacker unleashing a genetically modified super germ into the population.

“I think in the future that could be a problem,”says Caulfield, “but this isn’t something that would be easy to do in your garage. I think it’s complicated science. But having said that, the science is moving quickly. We need to think about how we are going to control the potential harms.”

You can find out more about the ‘wild’ people (mostly men) of early science in Richard Holmes’ 2008 book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.

Finally, should you be interested in connecting with synthetic biology enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and others, SynBioBeta is more than a conference; it’s also an activity hub.

ETA January 25, 2018 (five minutes later): There are some CRISPR/CAS9 events taking place in Toronto, Canada on January 24 and 25, 2018. One is a workshop with Portuguese artist, Marta de Menezes, and the other is a panel discussion. See my January 10, 2018 posting for more details.

*’Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.’ and ‘Canadian content’ added January 25, 2018 six minutes after first publication.

ETA February 20, 2018: Sarah Zhang’s Feb. 20, 2018 article for The Atlantic revisits Josiah Zayner’s decision to inject himself with CRISPR,

When Josiah Zayner watched a biotech CEO drop his pants at a biohacking conference and inject himself with an untested herpes treatment, he realized things had gone off the rails.

Zayner is no stranger to stunts in biohacking—loosely defined as experiments, often on the self, that take place outside of traditional lab spaces. You might say he invented their latest incarnation: He’s sterilized his body to “transplant” his entire microbiome in front of a reporter. He’s squabbled with the FDA about selling a kit to make glow-in-the-dark beer. He’s extensively documented attempts to genetically engineer the color of his skin. And most notoriously, he injected his arm with DNA encoding for CRISPR that could theoretically enhance his muscles—in between taking swigs of Scotch at a live-streamed event during an October conference. (Experts say—and even Zayner himself in the live-stream conceded—it’s unlikely to work.)

So when Zayner saw Ascendance Biomedical’s CEO injecting himself on a live-stream earlier this month, you might say there was an uneasy flicker of recognition.

“Honestly, I kind of blame myself,” Zayner told me recently. He’s been in a soul-searching mood; he recently had a kid and the backlash to the CRISPR stunt in October [2017] had been getting to him. “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually,” he said.

Yup, it’s one of the reasons for rules; people take things too far. The trick is figuring out how to achieve balance between risk taking and recklessness.

A jellyfish chat on November 28, 2017 at Café Scientifique Vancouver get together

Café Scientifique Vancouver sent me an announcement (via email) about their upcoming event,

We are pleased to announce our next café which will happen on TUESDAY,
NOVEMBER 28TH at 7:30PM in the back room of YAGGER'S DOWNTOWN (433 W


Did you know that in addition to stinging swimmers, jellyfish also cause
extensive damage to fisheries and coastal power plants? As threats such
as overfishing, pollution, and climate change alter the marine
environment, recent media reports are proclaiming that jellyfish are
taking over the oceans. Should we hail to our new jellyfish overlords or
do we need to examine the evidence behind these claims? Join Café
Scientifique on Nov. 28, 2017 to learn everything you ever wanted to
know about jellyfish, and find out if jelly burgers are coming soon to a
menu near you.

Our speaker for the evening will be DR. LUCAS BROTZ, a Postdoctoral
Research Fellow with the Sea Around Us at UBC’s Institute for the
Oceans and Fisheries. Lucas has been studying jellyfish for more than a
decade, and has been called “Canada’s foremost jellyfish
researcher” by CBC Nature of Things host Dr. David Suzuki. Lucas has
participated in numerous international scientific collaborations, and
his research has been featured in more than 100 media outlets including
Nature News, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. He recently
received the Michael A. Bigg award for highly significant student
research as part of the Coastal Ocean Awards at the Vancouver Aquarium.

We hope to see you there!

You can find out more about Lucas Brotz here and about Sea Around Us here.

For anyone who’s curious about the jellyfish ‘issue’, there’s a November 8, 2017 Norwegian University of Science and Technology press release on AlphaGallileo or on EurekAlert, which provides insight into the problems and the possibilities,

Jellyfish could be a resource in producing microplastic filters, fertilizer or fish feed. A new 6 million euro project called GoJelly, funded by the EU and coordinated by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Germany and including partners at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNNU) and SINTEF [headquartered in Trondheim, Norway, is the largest independent research organisation in Scandinavia; more about SINTEF in its Wikipedia entry], hopes to turn jellyfish from a nuisance into a useful product.

Global climate change and the human impact on marine ecosystems has led to dramatic decreases in the number of fish in the ocean. It has also had an unforseen side effect: because overfishing decreases the numbers of jellyfish competitors, their blooms are on the rise.

The GoJelly project, coordinated by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Germany, would like to transform problematic jellyfish into a resource that can be used to produce microplastic filter, fertilizer or fish feed. The EU has just approved funding of EUR 6 million over 4 years to support the project through its Horizon 2020 programme.

Rising water temperatures, ocean acidification and overfishing seem to favour jellyfish blooms. More and more often, they appear in huge numbers that have already destroyed entire fish farms on European coasts and blocked cooling systems of power stations near the coast. A number of jellyfish species are poisonous, while some tropical species are even among the most toxic animals on earth.

“In Europe alone, the imported American comb jelly has a biomass of one billion tons. While we tend to ignore the jellyfish there must be other solutions,” says Jamileh Javidpour of GEOMAR, initiator and coordinator of the GoJelly project, which is a consortium of 15 scientific institutions from eight countries led by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel.

The project will first entail exploring the life cycle of a number of jellyfish species. A lack of knowledge about life cycles makes it is almost impossible to predict when and why a large jellyfish bloom will occur. “This is what we want to change so that large jellyfish swarms can be caught before they reach the coasts,” says Javidpour.

At the same time, the project partners will also try to answer the question of what to do with jellyfish once they have been caught. One idea is to use the jellyfish to battle another, man-made threat.

“Studies have shown that mucus of jellyfish can bind microplastic. Therefore, we want to test whether biofilters can be produced from jellyfish. These biofilters could then be used in sewage treatment plants or in factories where microplastic is produced,” the GoJelly researchers say.

Jellyfish can also be used as fertilizers for agriculture or as aquaculture feed. “Fish in fish farms are currently fed with captured wild fish, which does not reduce the problem of overfishing, but increases it. Jellyfish as feed would be much more sustainable and would protect natural fish stocks,” says the GoJelly team.

Another option is using jellyfish as food for humans. “In some cultures, jellyfish are already on the menu. As long as the end product is no longer slimy, it could also gain greater general acceptance,” said Javidpour. Finally yet importantly, jellyfish contain collagen, a substance very much sought after in the cosmetics industry.

Project partners from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, led by Nicole Aberle-Malzahn, and SINTEF Ocean, led by Rachel Tiller, will analyse how abiotic (hydrography, temperature), biotic (abundance, biomass, ecology, reproduction) and biochemical parameters (stoichiometry, food quality) affect the initiation of jellyfish blooms.

Based on a comprehensive analysis of triggering mechanisms, origin of seed populations and ecological modelling, the researchers hope to be able to make more reliable predictions on jellyfish bloom formation of specific taxa in the GoJelly target areas. This knowledge will allow sustainable harvesting of jellyfish communities from various Northern and Southern European populations.

This harvest will provide a marine biomass of unknown potential that will be explored by researchers at SINTEF Ocean, among others, to explore the possible ways to use the material.

A team from SINTEF Ocean’s strategic program Clean Ocean will also work with European colleagues on developing a filter from the mucus of the jellyfish that will catch microplastics from household products (which have their source in fleece sweaters, breakdown of plastic products or from cosmetics, for example) and prevent these from entering the marine ecosystem.

Finally, SINTEF Ocean will examine the socio-ecological system and games, where they will explore the potentials of an emerging international management regime for a global effort to mitigate the negative effects of microplastics in the oceans.

“Jellyfish can be used for many purposes. We see this as an opportunity to use the potential of the huge biomass drifting right in front of our front door,” Javidpour said.

You can find out more about GoJelly on their Twitter account.

Plants that glow in the dark; Kickstarter campaign or public relations campaign?

Synthetic biologists have set up a Kickstarter campaign, Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity, designed to raise funds for a specific project and enthusiasm for  synthetic biology in the form of plants that glow in the dark. As of this morning (May 7, 2013, 9:50 am PDT), the campaign has raised $248, 600. They’ve met their initial goal of $60,000 and are now working towards their stretch goal of $400,000 with 30 days left.

Glowing Arabidopsis

Glowing Arabidopsis

Ariel Schwartz in her May 7, 2013 article for Fast Company describes the project this way,

Based on research from the University of Cambridge and the State University of New York, the Glowing Plants campaign promises backers that they’ll receive seeds to grow their own glowing Arabidopsis plants at home. If the campaign reaches its $400,000 stretch goal, glowing rose plants will also become available.

“We wanted to test the idea of whether there is demand for synthetic biology projects,” explains project co-founder Antony Evans. …

Kickstarter backers will get seeds created using particle bombardment. Gold nano-particles coated with a DNA construct developed by the team are fired at plant cells at a high-velocity. A small number of those particles make it into the Arabidopsis plant cells, where they’re absorbed into the plant chromosomes.

Arabidopsis was chosen for a number of reasons: it’s not native to the U.S., so there is little risk of cross-pollination; it doesn’t survive well in the wild (again, reducing risk of cross-pollination), it self-pollinates, and up until recently, it was thought to have the shortest genome of any plant. That means the protocols for Arabidopsis plant transformation work are well-established. Roses (the stretch goal plant) have also been studied extensively, and they carry little risk of cross-pollination, according to Evans.

As Schwartz notes, the project has potential for future applications,

In the meantime, Evans and his team plan on spending the next year on the campaign. Eventually, Evans imagines that the Glowing Plants creators will work on bigger glowing plant species, so one day they could even be used for street lighting.

Here’s more about the team behind this Kickstarter campaign (from the project page, click on Antony Evans),

Omri Amirav-Drory, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Genome Compiler, a synthetic biology venture. Prior to starting his company, Omri was a Fulbright postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine and HHMI, performing neuroscience research using structural and synthetic biology methods. Omri received his PhD in biochemistry from Tel-Aviv University for biochemical and structural studies of membrane protein complexes involved in bio-energetics.

Antony Evans has an MBA with Distinction from INSEAD, an MA in Maths from the University of Cambridge and is a graduate of Singularity University’s GSP program. He is both a Louis Frank and Oppidan scholar and worked for six years as a management consultant and project manager at Oliver Wyman and Bain & Company. Prior to this project he co-founded the world’s first pure mobile microfinance bank in the Philippines and launched a mobile app in partnership with Harvard Medical School.

Kyle Taylor was born and raised in the great state of Kansas, where his love of plants evolved out of an interest in the agriculture all around him. This lead him to major in Agriculture Biochemistry and minor in Agronomy at Iowa State University and then pursue a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at Stanford University. Not too bad for a rural country boy! Since a lot of people helped him get to this point, he’s driven to share his passion and excitement by making what he does more accessible. Kyle teaches Introduction to Molecular Cell Biology at Biocurious and is our resident plant expert.

This project reminded me of artist Eduardo Kac (pronounced Katz) and his transgenic bunny, Alba. She glows/ed green in the dark. Here’s more from Kac’s ‘transgenic bunny’ webpage,

My transgenic artwork “GFP Bunny” comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit. GFP stands for green fluorescent protein. “GFP Bunny” was realized in 2000 and first presented publicly in Avignon, France. Transgenic art, I proposed elsewhere [1], is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created.

Alba, the fluorescent bunny. Photo: Chrystelle Fontaine

Alba, the fluorescent bunny. Photo: Chrystelle Fontaine

She never looks quite real to me. Under a standard light, she’s a white rabbit but glows when illuminated by a blue  light.  From Kac’s transgenic bunny page,

She was created with EGFP, an enhanced version (i.e., a synthetic mutation) of the original wild-type green fluorescent gene found in the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria. EGFP gives about two orders of magnitude greater fluorescence in mammalian cells (including human cells) than the original jellyfish gene

I don’t know if she still lives but Kac was creating work based on her up until 2011. You can find more here.

ETA June 12, 2013:  Anya Kamenetz has written a followup June 12, 2013 article for Fast Company about this Kickstarter project (Note: A link has been removed),

Though the project is technically legal, its sheer hubris has kickstarted some serious from scientists and environmental groups that object to the release of these seeds to the public, with the chance that the DNA will get into the natural gene pool with unknown consequences. An anti-synthetic bio group called ETC has started a fundraising drive of their own, dubbed a “Kickstopper.”

There’s also an online petition according to Kamenetz. One comment, her description of ‘ETC’ as an anti-synthetic bio group doesn’t quite convey the group’s scope or depth. It’s name is the ETC Group (Action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) and its tag line is ‘monitoring power, tracking technology, strengthening diversity.

ETA August 16, 2017: I have an update for the Kickstarter project and additional information about Alba in an Aug. 16, 201 posting.

Medusa, jellyfish, and tissue engineering

The ‘Medusoid’ is a reverse- tissue-engineered jellyfish designed by a collaborative team of researchers based, respectively, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Harvard University. From the July 22, 2012 news item on ScienceDaily,

When one observes a colorful jellyfish pulsating through the ocean, Greek mythology probably doesn’t immediately come to mind. But the animal once was known as the medusa, after the snake-haired mythological creature its tentacles resemble. The mythological Medusa’s gaze turned people into stone, and now, thanks to recent advances in bio-inspired engineering, a team led by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Harvard University have flipped that fable on its head: turning a solid element—silicon—and muscle cells into a freely swimming “jellyfish.”

“A big goal of our study was to advance tissue engineering,” says Janna Nawroth, a doctoral student in biology at Caltech and lead author of the study. “In many ways, it is still a very qualitative art [emphasis mine], with people trying to copy a tissue or organ just based on what they think is important or what they see as the major components—without necessarily understanding if those components are relevant to the desired function or without analyzing first how different materials could be used.” Because a particular function—swimming, say—doesn’t necessarily emerge just from copying every single element of a swimming organism into a design, “our idea,” she says, “was that we would make jellyfish functions—swimming and creating feeding currents—as our target and then build a structure based on that information.”

Oops! I’m not sure why Nawroth uses the word ‘qualitative’ here. It’s certainly inappropriate given my understanding of the word. Here’s my rough definition, if anyone has anything better or can explain why Nawroth used ‘qualitative’  in that context, please do comment. I’m going to start by contrasting qualitative with quantitative, both of which I’m going to hugely oversimplify. Quantitative data offers numbers, e.g. 50,000 people committed suicide last year. Qualitative data helps offer insight into why. Researchers can obtain the quantitative data from police records, vital statistics, surveys, etc. where qualitative data is gathered from ‘story-oriented’ or highly detailed personal interviews. ( I would have used ‘hit or miss,’ ‘guesswork,’ or simply used the word art without qualifying it  in this context.)

The originating July 22, 2012 news release from Caltech goes on to describe why jellyfish were selected and how the collaboration between Harvard and Caltech came about,

Jellyfish are believed to be the oldest multi-organ animals in the world, possibly existing on Earth for the past 500 million years. Because they use a muscle to pump their way through the water, their function—on a very basic level—is similar to that of a human heart, which makes the animal a good biological system to analyze for use in tissue engineering.

“It occurred to me in 2007 that we might have failed to understand the fundamental laws of muscular pumps,” says Kevin Kit Parker, Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Harvard and a coauthor of the study. “I started looking at marine organisms that pump to survive. Then I saw a jellyfish at the New England Aquarium, and I immediately noted both similarities and differences between how the jellyfish pumps and the human heart. The similarities help reveal what you need to do to design a bio-inspired pump.”

Parker contacted John Dabiri, professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at Caltech—and Nawroth’s advisor—and a partnership was born. Together, the two groups worked for years to understand the key factors that contribute to jellyfish propulsion, including the arrangement of their muscles, how their bodies contract and recoil, and how fluid-dynamic effects help or hinder their movements. Once these functions were well understood, the researchers began to design the artificial jellyfish.

Here’s how they created the ‘Medusoid’ (artificial jellyfish, from the July 22, 2012 Harvard University news release on EurekAlert,

To reverse engineer a medusa jellyfish, the investigators used analysis tools borrowed from the fields of law enforcement biometrics and crystallography to make maps of the alignment of subcellular protein networks within all of the muscle cells within the animal. They then conducted studies to understand the electrophysiological triggering of jellyfish propulsion and the biomechanics of the propulsive stroke itself.

Based on such understanding, it turned out that a sheet of cultured rat heart muscle tissue that would contract when electrically stimulated in a liquid environment was the perfect raw material to create an ersatz jellyfish. The team then incorporated a silicone polymer that fashions the body of the artificial creature into a thin membrane that resembles a small jellyfish, with eight arm-like appendages.

Using the same analysis tools, the investigators were able to quantitatively match the subcellular, cellular, and supracellular architecture of the jellyfish musculature with the rat heart muscle cells.

The artificial construct was placed in container of ocean-like salt water and shocked into swimming with synchronized muscle contractions that mimic those of real jellyfish. (In fact, the muscle cells started to contract a bit on their own even before the electrical current was applied.)

“I was surprised that with relatively few components—a silicone base and cells that we arranged—we were able to reproduce some pretty complex swimming and feeding behaviors that you see in biological jellyfish,” says Dabiri.

Their design strategy, they say, will be broadly applicable to the reverse engineering of muscular organs in humans.

For future research direction I’ve excerpted this from the Caltech news release,

The team’s next goal is to design a completely self-contained system that is able to sense and actuate on its own using internal signals, as human hearts do. Nawroth and Dabiri would also like for the Medusoid to be able to go out and gather food on its own. Then, researchers could think about systems that could live in the human body for years at a time without having to worry about batteries because the system would be able to fend for itself. For example, these systems could be the basis for a pacemaker made with biological elements.

“We’re reimagining how much we can do in terms of synthetic biology,” says Dabiri. “A lot of work these days is done to engineer molecules, but there is much less effort to engineer organisms. I think this is a good glimpse into the future of re-engineering entire organisms for the purposes of advancing biomedical technology. We may also be able to engineer applications where these biological systems give us the opportunity to do things more efficiently, with less energy usage.”

I think this excerpt from the Harvard news release provides some insight into at least some of the motivations behind this work,

In addition to advancing the field of tissue engineering, Parker adds that he took on the challenge of building a creature to challenge the traditional view of synthetic biology which is “focused on genetic manipulations of cells.” Instead of building just a cell, he sought to “build a beast.”

A little competitive, eh?

For anyone who’s interested in reading the research (which is behind a paywall), from the ScienceDaily news item,

Janna C Nawroth, Hyungsuk Lee, Adam W Feinberg, Crystal M Ripplinger, Megan L McCain, Anna Grosberg, John O Dabiri & Kevin Kit Parker. A tissue-engineered jellyfish with biomimetic propulsion. Nature Biotechnology, 22 July 2012 DOI: 10.1038/nbt.2269

Andrew Maynard weighs in on the matter with his July 22, 2012 posting titled, We took a rat apart and rebuilt it as a jellyfish, on the 2020Science blog (Note: I have removed links),

 Sometimes you read a science article and it sends a tingle down your spine. That was my reaction this afternoon reading Ed Yong’s piece on a paper just published in Nature Biotechnology by Janna Nawroth, Kevin Kit Parker and colleagues.

The gist of the work is that Parker’s team have created a hybrid biological machine that “swims” like a jellyfish by growing rat heart muscle cells on a patterned sheet of polydimethylsiloxane.  The researchers are using the technique to explore muscular pumps, but the result opens the door to new technologies built around biological-non biological hybrids.

Ed Yong’s July 22, 2012 article for Nature (as mentioned by Andrew) offers a wider perspective on the work than is immediately evident in either of the news releases (Note: I have removed a footnote),

Bioengineers have made an artificial jellyfish using silicone and muscle cells from a rat’s heart. The synthetic creature, dubbed a medusoid, looks like a flower with eight petals. When placed in an electric field, it pulses and swims exactly like its living counterpart.

“Morphologically, we’ve built a jellyfish. Functionally, we’ve built a jellyfish. Genetically, this thing is a rat,” says Kit Parker, a biophysicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the work. The project is described today in Nature Biotechnology.


“I think that this is terrific,” says Joseph Vacanti, a tissue engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “It is a powerful demonstration of engineering chimaeric systems of living and non-living components.”

Here’s a video from the researchers demonstrating the artificial jellyfish in action,

There’s a lot of material for contemplation but what I’m going to note here is the difference in the messaging. The news releases from the ‘universities’ are very focused on the medical application where the discussion in the science community revolves primarily around the synthetic biology/bioengineering elements. It seems to me that this strategy can lead to future problems with a population that is largely unprepared to deal with the notion of mixing and recombining  genetic material or demonstrations of “of engineering chimaeric systems of living and non-living components.”

Robotic sea jellies (jellyfish) and carbon nanotubes

After my recent experience at the Vancouver Aquarium (Jan.19.12 posting) where I was informed that jellyfish are now called sea jellies, I was not expecting to see the term jellyfish still in use. I gather the new name is not being used universally yet, which explains the title for a March 23, 2012 news item on Nanowerk, Robotic jellyfish built on nanotechnology,

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Tech have created an undersea vehicle inspired by the common jellyfish that runs on renewable energy and could be used in ocean rescue and surveillance missions.

In a study published this week in Smart Materials and Structures (“Hydrogen-fuel-powered bell segments of biomimetic jellyfish”), scientists created a robotic jellyfish, dubbed Robojelly, that feeds off hydrogen and oxygen gases found in water.

“We’ve created an underwater robot that doesn’t need batteries or electricity,” said Dr. Yonas Tadesse, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UT Dallas and lead author of the study. “The only waste released as it travels is more water.”

Engineers and scientists have increasingly turned to nature for inspiration when creating new technologies. The simple yet powerful movement of the moon jellyfish made it an appealing animal to simulate.

The March 22, 2012 press release from the University of Texas at Dallas features images and a video in addition to its text. From the press release,

The Robojelly consists of two bell-like structures made of silicone that fold like an umbrella. Connecting the umbrella are muscles that contract to move.

Here’s a computer-aided image,

A computer-aided model of Robojelly shows the vehicle's two bell-like structures.

Here’s what the robojelly looks like,

The Robojelly, shown here out of water, has an outer structure made out of silicone.

This robojelly differs from the original model,which was battery-powered. Here’s a video of the original robojelly,

The new robojelly has artificial muscles(from the Mar. 22, 2012 University of Texas at Dallas press release),

In this study, researchers upgraded the original, battery-powered Robojelly to be self-powered. They did that through a combination of high-tech materials, including artificial muscles that contract when heated.

These muscles are made of a nickel-titanium alloy wrapped in carbon nanotubes, coated with platinum and housed in a pipe. As the mixture of hydrogen and oxygen encounters the platinum, heat and water vapor are created. That heat causes a contraction that moves the muscles of the device, pumping out the water and starting the cycle again.

“It could stay underwater and refuel itself while it is performing surveillance,” Tadesse said.

In addition to military surveillance, Tadesse said, the device could be used to detect pollutants in water.

This is a study that has been funded by the US Office of Naval Research. At the next stage, researchers want to make the robojelly’s legs work independently so it can travel in more than one direction.