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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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The champions of scientific research? Jellyfish

The ancient animals are at the center of studies seeking to explore the deep sea and investigating the regeneration of limbs.

(CN) — Researchers at the California Institute of Technology are using jellyfish in their labs to make discoveries in the areas of biology, deep-sea dynamics and engineering.

Jellyfish have roamed Earth’s oceans for more than 500 million years, preceding the dinosaurs by 250 million years. Equipped with a versatility honed over millions of years of evolution, the animals are an integral component of marine ecosystems, as well as the research done by scientists across multiple disciplines at Caltech.

Malaika Cordeiro, a graduate student researcher in bioengineering, works in two of Caltech’s labs using jellyfish. In the lab of John Dabiri, Cordeiro’s work focuses on attaching devices with sensors to the jellyfish that can be used to steer the animals as they explore the mysterious depths of the ocean and measure things like oxygen levels and temperature.

“Jellyfish are a really versatile animal. They’ve been seen at the surface and in the deep sea, they can even handle cold temperatures in the Arctic Ocean,” said Cordeiro. “If we wanted to use these robots for deep sea exploration, we could do that because the jellyfish are equipped to handle the stresses of a deep-sea environment.”

Cordeiro noted that the robots do not significantly alter the natural behavior of the jellyfish or create a lot of noise that could disrupt the deep-sea ecosystem researchers want to better understand.

“Since there’s so much unknown about the deep sea, there’s a lot to figure out and using these biohybrid robots would allow us to investigate things in the environment without causing a disturbance,” Cordeiro said, contrasting the presence of a tiny sensor on a jellyfish with the more intrusive presence of a submarine or other conspicuous underwater vehicle.

With jellyfish found as deep as seven miles beneath the ocean's surface in the Mariana Trench, these devices could prove crucial to understanding the dynamics of the deep sea, which plays a critical role for the planet and its climate but still presents unanswered questions to scientists.

Cordeiro said previous research groups at Caltech have determined how to use the devices to control the jellyfish’s speed and that she is picking up where they left off.

“I’m working on figure out how I can control a jellyfish’s ability to turn,” said Cordeiro of the devices she is engineering.

According to Cordeiro, other researchers are developing robots that can sense currents and flow in the water. The two devices could at some point combine components resulting in “a free-floating jellyfish swimming in the ocean that can adjust to flows and stay in currents that we want it to stay for sensing purposes.”

In the lab of Lea Goentoro, Cordeiro said the work is focused on regeneration. Studies published by researchers from the lab previous identified the way the jellyfish would repair themselves from an injury like a lost arm. The jellyfish would reorganize their remaining arms to be symmetrical and evenly spaced. In some cases, a new arm would begin to regrow.

Cordeiro’s work for the lab is focused on juvenile jellyfish known as polyps. The researchers chop and separate the cells of the polyp.

“You start to see the cells aggregating, forming clusters and then four days later, they’re growing tentacles again, so the polyps will become new polyps,” said Cordeiro. “We find this really cool because in the wild, piece of jellyfish can get torn off and this kind of shows that you don’t need a lot of cells to grow a new jellyfish or even to grow a new polyp colony.”

The research team is investigating how to induce this ability to regenerate in fruit flies and mice, with some success. The lab is focused on developing insight into what allows the jellyfish to regenerate and how this potentially latent ability for regeneration can be triggered in more complex organisms, including humans.

Categories / Science

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