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A Cyborg Snail That Is A Tiny Power Plant

Scientists have created a biofuel cell that lives inside a snail. It’s not just to be a mad scientist—the snail’s electricity can be used to power tiny video cameras. The next snail you see might be a spy.

Harnessing power from the natural world has long been a dream for humans, and between solar, geothermal, and other sources, we’re getting closer. Soon, there may be more power available—from the world of small shelled creatures.

Researchers from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, reported that they implanted a biofuel cell into a small snail. It’s the first time an implanted cell has continued to operate inside a living thing, using the snail’s own glucose to produce electrical power. The amount of power is small, of course, but eventually such creatures could be sent out into the world to search-and-rescue or spy on an enemy, using their new electrical abilities to power "various bioelectronic devices."

The process sounds a bit Franken-snail-ish. The researchers inserted two enzyme-coated electrodes through the shell of a snail into a space between the shell and the body, where glucose is present, produced by the snail for its own biological purposes. As the snail slithers around, the enzymes create a chemical reaction that produces tiny amounts of electricity from the glucose.

If that seems mildly nefarious, it might be because such projects in roboticizing small creatures are funded by a DARPA research program in Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems, which is working on "developing technology to provide control over insect locomotion, just as reins are needed for effective control over horse locomotion."

Since a majority of the tissue development in insects occurs in the later stages of metamorphosis, the renewed tissue growth around the implanted mechanical systems will tend to heal and form a reliable and stable tissue-machine interface. Then, the mechanical system will guide the insect’s locomotion, determine its position, and extract power to operate the electronic systems.

Researchers are getting closer to an actual machine-insect hybrid in a robotic cockroach that uses a similar system to convert an insect’s natural production of glucose into fuel for a biocell. The cockroach, which can withstand a nuclear blast, was not harmed by the implantation of a device in its abdomen. They also tried the same process on a Shitaake mushroom (the mushroom, likewise, was not harmed.)

Spying and war wouldn’t be the only use for internal biofuel cells, say the researchers. These naturally driven battery packs also could someday power artificial organs, nano-robots, or wearable personal electronics—but with the low levels of currents the devices can generate, they say, any micro-device requiring high power could operate only intermittently.