(CN) – Marine biologists have designed a new tool that allows them to conduct undersea research in a much more environmentally friendly way by using trailblazing “soft robotic linguine fingers.”
In a study published Monday in the journal Current Biology, scientists said when deep-sea jellyfish are held by ultra-soft robotic fingers, they expressed significantly fewer stress-related genes than when grasped by traditional submersible grippers. This new robotic technology, shaped like the famous noodle of their namesake, allows researchers to gather important ecological data in a gentler and much less invasive manner.
"Using genomics, we confirm that newly developed soft robots are a kinder way to handle some of the slipperiest organisms – jellyfish," says first author Michael Tessler, a post-doctoral fellow at American Museum of Natural History. "With new technologies we can often make massive advances on techniques, like deep-sea animal handling."
Unlike other more vocal animals like dogs and cats, jellyfish can’t hiss or whine to voice their discomfort in a stressful situation. Scientists instead must run an analysis of which genes the creatures express to give insights into how they react to changes in their environment.
“Soft robotics over the last several years have been developed for sampling and interacting with deep sea organisms,” Tessler said in an interview. “Tools are being invented to try to gently interact with organisms, and they seem to be great, but what hasn’t been tested is what it means for the animal and how it responds to different tools. Jellyfish have no brains, so how can you check on that?”
The researchers used gene sequencing to measure the differences in the jellyfishes’ gene expression when they were swimming freely, when held by the soft robotic fingers and when gripped by the more traditional rigid claw.
“When looking at the entire genome at any given time, it requires types of tools that were previously only available for working on model organisms, but now it is affordable enough that we are able to do a study like this on an organism like the jellyfish,” said Tessler. “We were able to look at thousands of genes rather than one at a time.”
In a statement accompanying the study, senior author David Gruber, a biology professor at City University of New York, Baruch College & CUNY Graduate Center, PhD Program in Biology, described the process.
"Imagine you're sitting very happily at your desk and I take a measurement of what genes are active, and then I poke you with a claw hand. I'd then look at how differently your genes reacted compared to when you were sitting unbothered; the strength of that difference can act as an indicator of your level of stress," said Gruber.
The gently held jellyfish displayed gene expression patterns most similar to that of the undisturbed individuals swimming freely, further demonstrating their calm response to capture and the effect of the device. But the jellyfish caught by the rigid claw expressed what are known as “repair” genes, which suggests they were preparing themselves for physical harm.
"I think what was interesting is that when you start harassing them with standard grippers, they immediately go into self-repair/stress because – being such a fragile organism – being stressed out is quite common for them," Gruber said.
Looking deeper, the scientists found the expression of self-repairing genes were at significantly higher levels when compared to both the free-swimming and the gently held jellyfish.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of these results is that the impact will extend far beyond just jellyfish.
"We just used them as our sample organisms," Gruber said. "Now that we've shown this method can cause less stress to something as fragile as a jellyfish, it really proves our hypothesis that soft robots in the deep sea can be effective tools for all manner of delicate interactions."
Those sentiments resound with co-author Nina Sinatra as well, who was a graduate student at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering when working on the study and was instrumental in designing the gentle robot fingers.
"Selecting materials that are flexible, tough, and lightweight allow soft robots to operate robustly in the deep-sea environment while being delicate enough to safely interact with some of the most fragile marine organisms," said Sinatra. "By expanding our toolbox of materials, engineers can unlock exciting and clever solutions to challenges that would not be tractable for conventional robots."
The soft robotic tools also have a wide array of advantages that can be brought above sea level for applications of direct benefit to humans.
"They could be used to harvest fruits from trees without bruising them, rehabilitate the muscles of stroke patients, and many other things that rigid-bodied robots are just too clunky and overpowered to accomplish today," says co-author Rob Wood, a Wyss Core Faculty member and professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).
Exploration of the ocean has never been an easy feat. The collection of data involves ripping materials from the seafloor and even killing specimens for the purpose of studying them on the surface.
“There are ways to interact with animals in increasingly gentle and humane ways, and exploring this type of science sets us up for exploring new areas of the world,” Tessler said.
With the use of these soft robots, it’s becoming more and more possible to take swabs of DNA and, with enough practice, even conduct medical checkups of deep-sea organisms with little physical impact.
"By integrating soft robots into how we conduct research of the deep sea, we are reshaping our vision of the future for marine biologists," Gruber said. "It's our philosophy that we should be as gentle and careful as possible as we study and approach these new frontiers."
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.