They may seem like unlikely animals to rely on, but cyborg snails may one day become invaluable assets to the military.
Researcher Evgeny Katz from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., has implanted tiny biofuel cells into snails that can generate electrical power from glucose and oxygen in the animal's blood, all while the snails gingerly munch on carrots, according to Nature.
Does this mean that cyborg snails may one day become an alternative energy source? Well, not exactly. The peewee-sized electrodes that fit into the bodies of snails don't produce enough electricity to power larger devices, but they might generate enough power for microcircuits and tiny sensors that could record important data about the environment that a snail crawls through.
The research has attracted funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, which is interested in the potential of cyborg creepy-crawlies of all sorts to provide reconnaissance and environmental monitoring for military purposes. A snail may not seem like the ideal candidate for providing expeditious reconnaissance information, but at the same time: who would ever suspect a snail?
In fact, snails are just the latest manifestation of this technology. Other researchers from Case Western Reserve University have recently created cyborg cockroaches using the same concept. Cockroaches are certainly quicker, and their faster metabolism also generates more electricity than a snail's does. But the advantage of snails is that they provide a more stable output for months rather than weeks.
"The truly impressive portion of [Katz’s] work is that the implantation provides such stable potential for such a long period of time," said Shelley Minteer, who works on biofuel cells at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
The research is also a big step up from previous attempts to create battery-powered microcircuits with sensors and radio antennae implanted into or carried by various bugs. Batteries proved too bulky, short-lived and cumbersome for small insects to handle. By tapping into an animal's own metabolism-- thus turning the critters into actual cyborgs-- researchers avoid these pitfalls.
Of course, the technology may begin with snails and cockroaches, but it's only a matter of time before it gets applied to humans. In fact, researchers at the Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, are busy building biocompatible fuel cells that may one day be implanted in humans so that our own blood supply can power medical devices such as pacemakers.
Meanwhile, Katz is busy preparing to apply the technology to other animals, preferably ones larger than snails. Next up: cyborg lobsters.
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