Monday, July 23, 2012

Artificially constructed jellyfish is built from heart

Artificial construction of organs is bound to get big in the next decade. A lot of scientific groups are devoted to discovering methods that allow us to grow tissues and organs in the lab, in order to transplant those to patients that need them. Naturally, it is not easy to copy nature's miracles in the lab, and much more knowledge is needed to fully understand how organs develop. Sometimes, scientists adopt rather unusual techniques in order to get a certain tissue type to grow in laboratory conditions, as is illustrated by a recent study from Harvard University. They used heart cells from a rat, and surprisingly managed to create a jellyfish out of it. It behaves like a live animal and, surprisingly enough, can help us with artificial organ construction.

After observing how a jellyfish swims, one of the lead scientists got the idea to construct the animal himself. Because a jellyfish propels itself much like the way a heart pumps, the scientists thought they could use heart cells in order to make it move. They also used a bit of silicon, to make it 'jelly' enough. Despite only having to use two basic materials, it was no easy task: every cell in the body of the jellyfish had to be mapped in order to make it move and function properly.

By itself, the jellyfish, which the scientists call medusoid, does not move. When an electric current is applied to the water the artificial animal does move, by synchronously contracting its single layer of muscle cells. It looks like an ordinary jellyfish, but it also looks like a pumping heart, and that is exactly what the scientists wanted to achieve. While their construction appears to be a jellyfish, it is made of rat heart, enabling us to study how the body's pump works. “Morphologically, we’ve built a jellyfish. Functionally, we’ve built a jellyfish. Genetically, this thing is a rat,” says Kit Parker, one of the lead scientists on the project.

According to the scientists, the eight-legged creature can be used for drug testing. Researchers wishing to test a drug for its ability to modify the heart's pump function can apply it to the jellyfish and see what happens. Because the artificial animal appears to behave in much the same way as a heart, we can also use it to study artificial creation of heart tissue. The next step is to create another jellyfish by using human heart cells. In addition, the scientists hope to create more synthetic marine animals, such as an octopus.

It seems rather amazing that one can see a jellyfish and think it can be made in the lab, by using cells derived from the heart of another animal. The scientists have shown it works, but the next step is to prove it is actually functional in our quest to repair damaged hearts. If it does not help us, well, then at least it is an amazing feature of synthetic biology. Below is a video of the artificial jellyfish 'swimming' in water.

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