When Animals Inspire Inventions

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If you had to pick an animal that could end up as the inspiration for one of the more ingenious medical tools of the future, which do you think it would be? Ants, with their amazing sensing skills? What about salamanders, which can replace a lost tail like we would a cell phone? Or bats? They nailed echolocation before our ancestors were walking.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. No, it’s the slimy sea lamprey, a bizarre-looking creature with a round, tooth-filled sucking disk where its face should be. It has no vertebrae, no jaw and a nervous system about as primitive as anything in the sea.

And therein lies its appeal.

A team of scientists at Newcastle University in the U.K. and the National Science Foundation in the U.S. really like that about the sea lamprey, so much so that they’re using it as a model for a tiny robot they’re developing–a robot that one day could swim around inside our bodies looking for diseases.

Pretty strange, eh? The researchers would acknowledge as much, but they think their invention, called Cyberplasm, is years, not decades, away from being used in the real world.

Here’s what they envision: A tiny robot–a half inch long initially, but eventually much smaller–that would have “eye” and “nose” sensors developed from living animal cells and an artificial nervous system that would collect data from its surroundings. It would respond to external stimuli, such as light or chemicals, the same way that biological systems do, and send electronic signals to its artificial muscles, which would be powered by glucose, just as real muscles are.

Because a lamprey’s nervous system is so simple, but complex enough to control a swimming motion, it’s an excellent model for a micro-robot that would be sensitive to its surroundings and move freely around inside a body. That would allow it to check for tumors or blood clots or chemical indicators of various diseases.

“Nothing matches a living creature’s natural ability to see and smell its environment and therefore collect data on what’s going on around it,” says Daniel Frankel, head of the Newcastle part of the research team.

Kinda makes you feel all slithery inside.

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