Soft robot fingers gently grasp deep-sea jellyfish

February 24, 2020

Marine biologists have adopted "soft robotic linguine fingers" as tools to conduct their undersea research. In a study appearing February 24 in the journal Current Biology, scientists found that jellyfish held by ultra-soft robotic fingers expressed significantly fewer stress-related genes than when braced by traditional submersible grippers. Shaped like the famous noodles, this new robotic technology allows for the collection of ecological data in a gentler, less invasive manner.

"Using genomics, we confirm that newly developed soft robots are a kinder way to handle some of the slipperiest organisms -- jellyfish," says first author Michael Tessler, a post-doctoral fellow at American Museum of Natural History. "With new technologies we can often make massive advances on techniques, like deep-sea animal handling."

Unlike a dog or cat, jellyfish can't hiss or whine about their discomfort. Instead, analysis of which genes they express can give insights into how they are reacting to their environment. Using gene sequencing, the researchers measured differences in jellyfish gene expression when they were swimming freely, held by the soft robot fingers, or gripped by the more standard rigid claw.

"Imagine you're sitting very happily at your desk and I take a measurement of what genes are active, and then I poke you with a claw hand. I'd then look at how differently your genes reacted compared to when you were sitting unbothered; the strength of that difference can act as an indicator of your level of stress," says senior author David Gruber, Professor of Biology, City University of New York, Baruch College & CUNY Graduate Center, PhD Program in Biology.

The gently held jellies displayed gene expression patterns most like the undisturbed individuals, demonstrating their relatively calm response to capture. What's more, jellies caught by the claw expressed "repair" genes, suggesting they were priming themselves for physical harm. "I think what was interesting is that when you start harassing them with standard grippers, they immediately go into self-repair/stress because--being such a fragile organism--being stressed out is quite common for them," says Gruber. The expression of these self-repair genes was at higher levels compared to the free-swimming or gently held jellyfish.

But the impacts of this study extend far beyond just jellyfish. "We just used them as our sample organisms," says Gruber. "Now that we've shown this method can cause less stress to something as fragile as a jellyfish, it really proves our hypothesis that soft robots in the deep sea can be effective tools for all manner of delicate interactions."

These sentiments are echoed by co-author Nina Sinatra, who was a graduate student at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering when working on the study and designed the gentle robot fingers. "Selecting materials that are flexible, tough, and lightweight allow soft robots to operate robustly in the deep-sea environment while being delicate enough to safely interact with some of the most fragile marine organisms," says Sinatra. "By expanding our toolbox of materials, engineers can unlock exciting and clever solutions to challenges that would not be tractable for conventional robots."

Further, these soft robotic tools can be brought to the surface for applications of direct benefit to humans. "They could be used to harvest fruits from trees without bruising them, rehabilitate the muscles of stroke patients, and many other things that rigid-bodied robots are just too clunky and overpowered to accomplish today," says co-author Rob Wood, a Wyss Core Faculty member and professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

Historically, ocean exploration has been a rough exercise; collecting data has required ripping material from the sea floor or killing specimens to then study at the surface. With the inclusion of soft robots, it's becoming possible to take swabs of DNA and even conduct medical checkups of deep-sea organisms in real time, with little physical impact.

"By integrating soft robots into how we conduct research of the deep sea, we are reshaping our vision of the future for marine biologists," says Gruber. "It's our philosophy that we should be as gentle and careful as possible as we study and approach these new frontiers."
-end-
This work was funded in part by the National Geographic Society, the CUNY Office of Research, the National Science Foundation, the Helen Gurley Brown Revocable Trust, and Harvard's Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

Current Biology, Tessler et al.: "Ultra-gentle soft robot fingers induce minimal transcriptomic response in a fragile marine animal during handling" https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(20)30032-4

Current Biology (@CurrentBiology), published by Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that features papers across all areas of biology. Current Biology strives to foster communication across fields of biology, both by publishing important findings of general interest and through highly accessible front matter for non-specialists. Visit: http://www.cell.com/current-biology. To receive Cell Press media alerts, contact press@cell.com

Cell Press

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.