Bionic Jellyfish: Science’s Newest Ocean Explorers?

April 16, 2024
Science Magazine

Although they cover the majority of our planet’s surface, the Earth’s oceans remain almost entirely unexplored. Researchers at Caltech are seeking to address the ocean’s mysteries with the help of none other than some of the oldest animal lifeforms: jellyfish.  

Above: Jellyfish ‘swim’ in the depths of the ocean. Image courtesy of Neuroscience News.  

While jellyfish are simple organisms, these mushroom-shaped sea creatures have explored parts of the ocean that humans have never seen. Caltech engineers aim to equip jellyfish with technology that propels them through the depths to collect data on the ocean. Led by Dr. John Dabiri, a professor of aeronautics and mechanical engineering at Caltech, the project initially sought to create a robotic version of the jellyfish. When his team found that the robotic imitation fell short of the real animal’s swimming, they decided that actual jellyfish are much better candidates for ocean exploration. 

Robotizing the Jellyfish  

To increase the undersea efficiency of his jellyfish explorers, Dabiri implanted a device similar to a pacemaker into the jellyfish to control their speed and enable them to swim faster. This device represents an elegant solution to the problem of speed: it propels the jellyfish forward without using much energy, enabling more efficient ocean exploration. Graduate student Simon Anuszczyk then designed a 3D-printed forebody for the jellyfish. They placed this device on the bell of the jellyfish—an area equivalent to the top of its head. The technology not only enables directional control and vertical movement of the jellyfish but also attaches sensors that the organisms carry along throughout their travels.

Now, the team needed to put the enhanced jellyfish to the test. This required constructing a three-story aquarium in one of Caltech’s laboratories. The tests proved that the jellyfish with the pacemaker and forebody could swim up to four and a half times faster than a regular jellyfish. The bionic jellyfish was now a reality. 

More work is needed to make full use of this new technology. Importantly, the researchers still need to ensure that their technology can withstand the high undersea pressures that jellyfish can naturally endure. Another goal is to develop a way to horizontally “steer” the bionic jellyfish.

Above: Simon Anuszczyk (left) and Dr. John Dabiri (right). Image courtesy of Caltech.

Ethical Considerations and Implications  

Since jellyfish lack a brain and do not sense pain, Dabiri’s work represents an ethical option for ocean exploration and marine animal research. After careful observation, the jellyfish exhibited no changes in swimming patterns after the removal of the equipment.  

Jellyfish have unique access to the mysteries of the ocean’s depths. “If we can find a way to direct these jellyfish and also equip them with sensors to track things like ocean temperature, salinity, oxygen levels, and so on, we could create a truly global ocean network where each of the jellyfish robots costs a few dollars to instrument and feeds themselves energy from prey already in the ocean," Dabiri said.

The bionic jellyfish represent a cost-effective and sustainable way to explore the deep sea and monitor the effects of global events like climate change and natural disasters on the ocean. With the help of these sensor-equipped jellyfish, humans may soon view parts of the ocean that we have never entered before.

Written by Dharshini Julius, this article was selected as a winner of our 2024 High School Science Communication Challenge. A Florida native, Julius is a senior at Stanton College Preparatory School in Jacksonville, Florida. She plans to pursue marketing in college. Outside of school, she enjoys reading, cooking, and working on craft projects.

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