Is Hard to beat the lobsters.‘destructive capabilities: after all, there is a reason why they are one of the biblical plagues. The insect’s notorious ability to home in on food sources like agricultural fields is largely due to the impressive olfactory senses powered by its antennae. Although researchers previously integrated this biological tool in robotics to potentially develop a new generation of bomb sniffing and search and rescue aids, a team at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, is experimenting with harnessing the insects themselves…after turning them into cyborgs.
Engineers can already use lobsters’ sense of smell by recording signals from electrodes connected to their brains, but the results are often inaccurate and unreliable. To solve this problem, scientists led by mechanical engineering and materials science professor Srikanth Singamaneni injected infrared-sensitive nanoparticles into the brains of lobsters.
“Approaches to reading information from biological systems, especially neural signals, tend to be suboptimal due to the number of electrodes that can be used and where they can be placed,” Singamaneni and his colleagues wrote in their new paper published in the journal, Natural nanomaterials. “By taking advantage of the photothermal properties of nanostructures…we demonstrate that the odor-evoked response of the interrogated regions of the insect olfactory system can not only be enhanced but also odor identification can be improved.”
These tiny additives, made from a protein core encased in a silicon shell, were first imbued with octopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with an insect’s “fight or flight” instinct. When exposed to infrared laser light, the nanoparticles emitted chemicals to stimulate brain activity related to the lobster’s olfactory senses. This then made it easier for scientists to locate that specific neural activity and use the (previously unreliable) electrodes to identify chemicals in a common laboratory test suite.
At the moment, these first demos are more of a proof of concept than anything else. Talking with new scientist On Thursday, Singamaneni explains that the system currently only works in closed laboratory environments and not in real-time situations. Still, Singamaneni’s team hopes that more research and experimentation can one day develop a method to create small swarms of cyborg-enhanced locusts capable of detecting medical problems in humans, locating explosives or zeroing in on environmental pollutants.