Bionic jellyfish ready to help monitor our oceans (soon)

Researchers from Caltech and Stanford have fitted moon jellyfish with specialised microelectronics to help them swim 3x faster than normal. It is hoped these bionic jellies could help us better monitor ocean health in the future.

A close up of one of the experimental moon jellyfish highlighting the bionic implants it has been given

It might sound like something straight out of a bad science fiction movie, but bionic jellyfish are now 100% a real thing. That is after a joint research team from Caltech and Stanford fitted moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) with microchips and electrodes that act like a jelly pacemaker. The result is an augmented jellyfish capable of swimming three times faster than its usual leisurely speed. The new jellies can now swim at a (relatively) rapid pace of 6cm per second at a higher energy efficiency than they can naturally manage. It is hopefully the first step in creating a floating network of jelly drones that can help researchers more accurately monitor ocean health. But how does it work and are there any ethical considerations we need to be wary of?

Technologically advanced

The team behind this new research is Nicole Wu, a researcher from Stanford University, and John Dabiri, a mechanical engineer at the Caltech Institute. They technologically augmented moon jellyfish by attaching electrodes to the jellyfishes bell which in turn were connected to a central unit containing a microchip and battery. The unit, around 2cm in size, then co-ordinates a pulse of electricity through the electrodes at regular intervals to contract the bell and create a pulse, a bit like a human pacemaker. This is how jellyfish naturally swim, the only difference is that the rate of pulses is increased and so they can travel much faster. In fact they can go three times faster, from a leisurely 2cm/s to a slightly less leisurely 6cm/s. Nicole Wu describes this process as “very sci-fi futuristic”.

Bionic jellyfish don’t just swim faster than regular ones, but also more energy efficiently 

Conserving energy

Despite being able to travel up to three times faster than they would normally, the moon jellies in the experiment were shown to only use twice as much energy. John Dabiri explains that“the only energy we have to put into the system is for that little bit of electrical impulse the animal uses to contract its muscles.” Because they can travel faster using less energy it also greatly increases the range the jellyfish would be able to travel in a lifetime. According to Nicole Wu this might “expand the number of environments” they can explore.


The next step

The researchers believe that these bionic jellyfish are a proof of concept for creating enhanced jellyfish capable of becoming a floating network of scientific researchers. By further attaching more pieces of tech to the jellyfish they could help record temperature, salinity and oxygen levels, as well as transmit the data they collect to satellites for the real researchers to access. The big benefit of using bionic jellyfish to monitor our oceans compared to underwater drones or other purely technological solution is their energy efficiency. It is also a lot cheaper to technologically enhance an abundant source of jellyfish that to create a smaller number of robots.

Artist's imagination
An artists impression of what a swarm of jellyfish drones could one day look like

Diving deeper

One of the main advantages of using the jellyfish as research drones is also their ability to explore more of the deep ocean. Most buoys and probes used to measure water quality like temperature and salinity are found on the surface. Until now the only way to do the same at depths is to use costly boat trawls and submarines. Initial tests will therefore incorporate a form of remote navigation so researchers can control where the jellyfish go. “Basically, we’d release the bionic jellyfish at the surface, have it swim down to increasing depths and see just how far we can get it to go down into the ocean and still make it back to the surface with data” says John Dabini. If they are capable of doing this it will make these bionic jellies uniquely qualified to monitor our oceans.

No ethical concerns?

The reason this type of technological augmentation of jellyfish has been allowed is that these gelatinous underwater animals have no centralised nervous system or pain receptors. This means that the jellyfish do not feel any of the modifications made to them and aren’t even aware they’ve been fundamentally altered. In addition to this researchers believe it will not alter their ability to feed or their chances of survival, which is very important. Even though they can’t feel pain jellyfish will actually secrete a mucus when stressed by changes in their environment, but the jellies in this experiment produced no such evidence of distress.

Lab experiment
This might look a bit cruel but because the moon jellies have no brain or pain receptors it really isn’t.

However although there are no real ethical dilemmas in doing this to jellyfish, some people won’t be able to help themselves from thinking this is opening a can of worms that we may not be able to close later on. At the end of the day these researchers are giving these animals abilities that have not naturally occurred over millions of years and are using them for their own gain. If a network of jellyfish drones become successful it might tempt someone to try something similar with an animal that might start to notice like a fish or marine mammal. Therefore as much as we should be encouraging these sorts of technological advantages in helping tackle environmental problems, we also have to keep a close eye on proceedings to prevent any future ethical confusion.


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