A research team based at Harvard University's Disease Biophysics Group, which Kevin Kit Parker directs, created the translucent, penny-sized ray with a gold skeleton and silicone fins layered with the heart muscle cells of a rat.
It's remote-controlled, guided by a blinking blue flashlight. Each burst of blue sets off a cascade of signals through the cells, which have been genetically-engineered to respond to light. The contraction of the tissue creates a downward motion on the ray's body. When the tissue relaxes, the gold skeleton recoils — moving the fin upward again in an undulating cycle that mimics the graceful swimming of a real ray or skate.
Parker, whose research includes cardiac cell biology, launched the project as a method for learning more about the mysteries of the human heart and a step toward the far-off goal of building an artificial one. But the interdisciplinary project is also sparking interest in other fields, from marine biology to robotics.
As an Army veteran who did two tours in Afghanistan, Parker welcomes any part his stingrays could play in advancing the development of machines able to perform dangerous jobs.
"Bio-hybrid machines — things with synthetic parts and living materials — they're going to happen," Parker said. "I've spent time getting shot at and seen people getting shot. If I could build a cyborg so my buddy doesn't have to crawl into that ditch to look for an IED, I'd do that in a heartbeat."
John Long, a professor of biology and cognitive science who directs Vassar College's Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, says that the creation could spark new research into autonomous, part-living machines.