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Autonomous Cyborg Jellyfish Pose Exciting Opportunity for Ocean Exploration

cyborg jellyfish screengrab

Earth’s oceans are—like space—a largely unexplored frontier. Relatively few humans have explored either place, using specialized life-support equipment. Unlike space, however, the oceans also have other beings that can explore them: jellyfish. They can head to places underwater that humans can never go. That makes them interesting candidates for autonomous ocean exploration.

Jahn Dabiri, a researcher at Caltech, is modifying these creatures to create biohybrid robotic jellyfish. These cyborg jellies do what they’ve done since time immemorial: swim, eat, sting, and breed. But, with a few enhancements—including a little electronics pack and a prosthetic hat—these little guys now have enhanced swimming capabilities. The idea is to use the cyborg jellyfish as data-gathering robots. They will swim the ocean to collect information about temperatures, oxygen levels, and salinity. Climate change affects all these factors. This is important as we seek to understand how the buildup of carbon dioxide could affect the oceans.

“It’s well known that the ocean is critical for determining our present and future climate on land, and yet, we still know surprisingly little about the ocean, especially away from the surface,” said Dabiri. “Our goal is to finally move that needle by taking an unconventional approach inspired by one of the few animals that already successfully explores the entire ocean.”

Recruiting Jellyfish to Solve Engineering Challenges

It may seem a little odd to co-opt jellyfish into doing science data gathering, but it’s not a new idea. These creatures inspired Dabiri to try creating a mechanic robot that swam like one. The idea worked, sort of. But, the robotic one never did swim as well as the real thing. So, eventually, Dabiri decided to, in essence, recruit live ones for further experiments.

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Dabiri and colleagues first implanted electronic pacemakers into jellyfish to control their swim speeds. When that worked, they added an additional piece to the jelly, called a forebody. It looks like a little hat that sits atop the jelly’s body. The team had to do some work to adapt it. Eventually, they came up with a model that works with sensors and other electronics.

“Much like the pointed end of an arrow, we designed 3D-printed forebodies to streamline the bell of the jellyfish robot, reduce drag, and increase swimming performance,” team member Simon Anuszczyk said. “At the same time, we experimented with 3D printing until we were able to carefully balance the buoyancy and keep the jellyfish swimming vertically.”

How Well Did the Cyborg Jellyfish Work?

After much experimentation, the team was ready to test their cyborg partners. They built a three-story aquarium at Caltech for the tests. Why so big? “In the ocean, the round trip from the surface down to several thousand meters will take a few days for the jellyfish, so we wanted to develop a facility to study that process in the lab,” Dabiri said. “Our vertical tank lets the animals swim against a flowing vertical current, like a treadmill for swimmers. We expect the unique scale of the facility—probably the first vertical water treadmill of its kind—to be useful for a variety of other basic and applied research questions.”

Dabiri Lab Long Distance Swimming Forebody3 .max 250x250 1
A biohybrid jellyfish descends through the three-story tank in which swimming tests were conducted. Credit: Caltech

The results are interesting. Testing showed that a cyborg jellyfish carrying an instrument payload swims up to 4.5 times faster than a “naked” one. And, they are hardy creatures that don’t seem to mind the work at all. “Jellyfish are the original ocean explorers, reaching its deepest corners and thriving just as well in tropical or polar waters,” Dabiri says. “Since they don’t have a brain or the ability to sense pain, we’ve been able to collaborate with bioethicists to develop this biohybrid robotic application in a way that’s ethically principled.”

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The cost of a cyborg jellyfish is pretty cheap, compared to highly expensive ocean-going instruments. The total expense comes to about $20 per jellyfish, according to Dabiri. A research vessel with similar capabilities can cost upwards of $50,000. Of course, the jellyfish have only been tested in a relatively shallow area. For jellies to be sent to greater depths, there’s more work to be done on their instrument packs. “We still need to design the sensor package to withstand the same crushing pressures, but that device is smaller than a softball, making it much easier to design than a full submarine vehicle operating at those depths,” said Dabiri. “I’m really excited to see what we can learn by simply observing these parts of the ocean for the very first time.”

Cyborg Jellies in Space?

Dabiri’s work doesn’t cover any space applications. However, reading about these cyborgs does invoke thoughts of using similar technologies at other worlds. We can’t send cyborg jellyfish to Europa, really. But, maybe instrument designers can take a cue from their enhanced abilities to come up with advanced swimmers to ply the salty oceans of that distant moon. Who knows what they might find—and all thanks to some jellyfish research partners right here on Earth.

For More Information

Building Bionic Jellyfish for Ocean Exploration
Bionic Jellyfish Swimg Faster and More Efficiently
Electromechanical Enhancement of Life Jellyfish for Ocean Exploration

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Black couple overcomes racism to rent to Chinese family, who show gratitude by paying rent.

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Decades ago, in the early 1900s, racism and discriminatory housing practices plagued the town of Coronado, barring many individuals from living in certain neighborhoods based on their race. In the midst of this oppressive era, an inspiring story of resilience and generosity unfolded between two families — the Thompsons, a Black couple, and the Dongs, a Chinese family.

Gus and Emma Thompson, who were among the few Black families to own property in Coronado before racial restrictions took hold, defied the norms of the time by renting their house to the Dong family. Lloyd Dong Sr., a Chinese immigrant, and his wife found solace in the Thompsons’ willingness to offer them a place to call home despite the racist barriers they faced.

Fast forward 85 years later, the sons of Lloyd Dong Sr., Ron Dong, and Lloyd Dong Jr., have decided to pay forward the kindness shown to their family by donating $5 million from the sale of the house they eventually owned to San Diego State University’s Black Resource Center. This generous gift will help expand scholarships for Black students and fund renovations at the center, creating a lasting impact on the community.

Exterior view of a single-story home

The Dongs’ family house in Coronado, originally the home of the Thompsons.

(Courtesy of Janice Dong)

This heartwarming tale of intergenerational gratitude highlights the resilience and spirit of unity that transcends racial boundaries. Brandon Gamble, the director of the Black Resource Center, expressed the profound impact of this donation on the community, emphasizing the importance of stories that challenge racism and foster a sense of camaraderie.

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Reflecting on the legacy of his father and the Thompsons, Ron Dong shared, “That was the big plus for our family, because it has made all the difference for us.” The intertwined histories of the Thompson and Dong families serve as a testament to the power of empathy and solidarity in the face of adversity.

Gus Thompson’s journey from slavery to becoming a respected community leader in Coronado, coupled with Emma Thompson’s advocacy for civil rights, exemplifies the resilience and determination of marginalized communities to thrive in the face of oppression.

Gus Thompson in 1947.

Gus Thompson in 1947.

(Norman Baynard Collection / San Diego History Center)

The legacy of allyship and support exemplified by the Thompsons extends to their willingness to assist Asian Americans facing similar discriminatory practices. This act of solidarity echoes the sentiment that in times of oppression, helping others regardless of race is not just a gesture but a necessity.

As the Dong family embraced their new home in Coronado, overcoming discrimination and forging their path to homeownership, they carried forward the spirit of resilience and unity shown to them by the Thompsons. The bond between these two families serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration in a society marred with division and prejudice.

The Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian-style beach resort outside San Diego, and tent city on the beach, 1908.

The Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian-style beach resort outside San Diego, and a tent city on the beach, 1908.

(Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images)

The resilience and determination displayed by the Dong family in the face of discrimination, coupled with their unwavering commitment to education and community upliftment, exemplify the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. The decision to give back to the community through education underscores the transformative power of generosity and empathy in creating a more inclusive and equitable society.

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As the Dongs’ generous donation paves the way for future generations to access educational opportunities and resources, their story serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration for all who strive to overcome adversity and champion unity in the face of division.

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