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How a zombie fish may one day save your heart

by Susan Szuch

Take a dead fish, tie it to a string, and put it in a tank of water.

Then, slowly start moving the water through the tank, swirling it faster and faster.

Something seemingly miraculous happens—our scaled friend begins to swim.

No, it’s not a mysterious rising from the dead. Instead, this “zombie” fish is due to the interaction between the fish’s body and the water as it flows around him. Very similar to how wind can pick up and make a flag on a flagpole move, water can create movement in a fish, regardless of whether it is alive.

Illinois researcher, Blue Waters professor, and NCSA faculty affiliate Mattia Gazzola and his team are conducting research in an effort to understand how the brain, body, and fluid flow work together to produce a behavior. Gazzola’s interest in how organic organisms move, called biolocomotion, spans various facets of the problem: how computing, software and numerics, come together to provide better insights on biolocomotion. The biolocomotion problem is part of the larger research focus on developing biologically driven soft robotics and actuators that can be used to solve challenges in medicine. Their research was published earlier this year in Advanced Functional Materials and the team was just awarded a $2 million award from the National Science Foundation to “model, design, fabricate and study micrometer to centimeter size soft bio-hybrid robots that bring together artificial elements and living biological cells.”

The Blue Waters supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications is an essential part of this research, due to the size and complexity of the simulations.

“For example, [with] some animals the flow can generate some instability in the body … that means [the animals] can swim without thinking or controlling the muscles of their body,” Gazzola says.

Being able to see interactions between body and flow opens up new possibilities for researchers aiming to make biohybrid systems—systems that combine an element found in nature with a new engineering element. As researchers determine ways the environment interacts with a body to produce movement without a neurosystem this may go even further.

“You learn how to put everything into the design [of the system] so you don’t need really complicated controls, and the environment and [the] body does all the work for you,” Gazzola says.

“Some of the things that we do can be run on much smaller scale, and still could be of interest, but the larger picture needs a machine like Blue Waters,” Gazzola says. “This is thousands of simulations. Each 3D flow simulation is billions of elements.”

Gazzola sees practical applications for the research, although they are still a way down the road. At the moment, they sound like something out of a futuristic movie.

“With these little biohybrid problems—very tiny, like one millimeter—imagine having them in your body and swimming in your body and doing something useful. These are biohybrids, so they’re powered by cells,” Gazzola says. “Imagine in the distant future taking some of your own cells and building a biohybrid. Then the biohybrid can transport some tiny drugs and deliver them somewhere in your body or carry some of your cells and patch your heart.”

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