Living Stingray ‘Biohybrid’ Created From Rat Heart Cells [Video]

A team of scientists from Harvard created a stingray biohybrid, and despite being unable to reproduce or eat, its creators insist that it is, in fact, living. Its body is made of a silicone material and was created to resemble a stingray. It has a skeleton made of gold, and its body is covered with rat heart cells.

The living biohybrid stingray is part robot, part living creature; it reacts to light and swims similarly to its natural biological inspiration. The creation of the biohybrid stingray is being called a “bio-engineering breakthrough,” and it could pave the way to the creation of artificial replacement organs for human patients.

Kit Parker, the Harvard scientist who led the bio-engineering project, told Popular Mechanics how the living stingray biohybrid was created by himself and his team. His description sounds a bit crazy. Even crazier, though, is that it’s an accurate depiction of how the little living bot was engineered.

“Roughly speaking, we made this thing with a pinch of rat cardiac cells, a pinch of breast implant, and a pinch of gold. That pretty much sums it up, except for the genetic engineering.”

The newly created (or engineered, depending on your preferred description) living stingray biohybrid is relatively small. It’s just over a half an inch long and weighs just about 10 grams. However, it is capable of swimming through liquid using the same type of movement as its biological inspiration. It gets its momentum from the roughly 200,000 heart muscle cells that help make up its construction. (Don’t worry, the rat heart muscles are genetically engineered and lab grown, not harvested.)

It is capable of sensing and following pulses of bright light, which allow it to move smoothly, executing twists and turns with ease at it navigates.

Parker, the lead engineer of the living stingray biohybrid. believes that what he’s created is far more than a robot and that it could actually be classified as a new form of biological life.

“I think we’ve got a biological life-form here. A machine, but a biological life form. I wouldn’t call it an organism, because it can’t reproduce, but it certainly is alive.”

The newly-developed stingray biohybrid was made in several layers, which work in tangent to allow the living robot to perform in much the same manner as a biological stingray. The top layer of the innovative new biohybrid was 3D printed using silicone (yep, the same kind found in breast implants); the material allows the little robotic hybrid stingray to be clear as well as flexible. The biohybrid stingray’s skeleton, the second layer, is made of gold, which is both flexible enough to move with the silicone and rigid enough to ensure that the biohybrid retains its shape as it moves. Then there’s a third layer, consisting of more silicone.

The fourth and final layer of the living biohybrid stingray is what really sets it apart from other robots. It’s what puts the “bio” in biohybrid. This is where the genetically-engineered rat heart cell muscles (each one a living cell) are integrated into the stingray biohybrid.

This is the layer that allows the robotic living creature to move as smoothly as a fully biological stingray. They cells, like all heart muscles, “undulate in rhythmic patterns” when exposed to stimuli. In this instance, the rat heart cells used to construct the living stingray biohybrid are designed to only respond to specific frequencies and wavelengths of light. When they are exposed to the lights, depending on the light’s pattern, the biohybrid stingray robot moves like the living creatures that it was created to emulate.

Scientists and engineers can change the movement of the biohybrid stingray by changing the patterns, frequency, and position of the guiding lights it is exposed to.

The living stingray biohybrid robot lives in a specially engineered “nutrient bath” that feeds the rat cells and is kept at rat body temperature. So far, the little stingray robot has been kept alive for over six weeks. Because the stingray biohybrid doesn’t have an immune system or any other natural system of defense to keep it safe from infection and/or other possible biological threats, it will be some time before scientists are able to release their living stingray biohybrid robots into any kind of non-laboratory environment.

[Image by Shutterstock]