Researchers from Harvard have created an artificial fish that can swim on its own. And it’s all thanks to tissue from a human heart. Just on its own that sounds pretty fascinating. However, the artificial fish is just one part of a larger project, one that will hopefully lead researchers to develop a fully artificial heart. The researchers published their findings in Science.
Scientists used paper, gelatin, a plastic fin, and two layers of cardiac muscle tissue to make the artificial fish. We first saw this story at Smithsonian Magazine. So how does this very artificial fish move? The tissue contracts. It replicates a beating heart. The tissue propels the fish forward, allowing it to replicate the sensation of swimming on its own. An autonomous pacing node acted akin to a pacemaker. It keeps the fin’s movement and rhythm under control.
The fish swam for more than 100 days—and got better with age. The press release noted that “its muscle contraction amplitude, maximum swimming speed, and muscle coordination all increased for the first month as the cardiomyocyte cells matured. Eventually, the biohybrid fish reached speeds and swimming efficacy similar to zebrafish in the wild.”
The researchers are hoping to parlay their findings to make biohybrid parts for human hearts. Specifically, they hope to one day create a functioning artificial heart for kids. Kit Parker, a Harvard Bioengineering and Applied Physics professor and the paper’s senior author, opened up about the findings and the researchers’ hopes for the future. Parker said in a statement:
Our ultimate goal is to build an artificial heart to replace a malformed heart in a child. Most of the work in building heart tissue or hearts, including some work we have done, is focused on replicating the anatomical features or replicating the simple beating of the heart in the engineered tissues. But here, we are drawing design inspiration from the biophysics of the heart, which is harder to do. Now, rather than using heart imaging as a blueprint, we are identifying the key biophysical principles that make the heart work, using them as design criteria, and replicating them in a system, a living, swimming fish, where it is much easier to see if we are successful.
That’s a pretty moving end goal. We’re certainly curious to see how the next steps in their research pan out. Until then, we’re fairly mesmerized by a robotic swimming fish.