Cyborg locusts may one day help search-and-rescue missions

It's hard to top the destructive capabilities of locusts: there's a reason they're among the biblical plagues, after all. The insect's notorious ability to zero in on food sources like agricultural fields is largely due to the impressive olfactory senses powered by its antennae. Although researchers have already integrated this biological tool into robotics to potentially develop a new generation of bomb search and rescue aids, a team from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, is experimenting with exploitation of the insects themselves… after having augmented them into cyborgs.

Engineers can already use locusts' sense of smell by recording signals from electrodes attached to their brains, but the results are often inaccurate and unreliable. To solve this problem, scientists led by Srikanth Singamaneni, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, instead injected infrared-sensitive nanoparticles into the locusts' brains.

[Related: This robot gets its super smelling power from locust antennae.]

“[A]Approaches to reading information from biological systems, particularly neural signals, tend to be suboptimal due to the number of electrodes that can be used and where these can be placed,” wrote Singamaneni and colleagues in their new article published in the journal. Natural nanomaterials. “By exploiting the photothermal properties of the nanostructures…we show that the response to odors evoked by interrogated regions of the insect olfactory system can not only be enhanced, but also improve odor identification.”

These tiny additives, made of a protein core encased in a silicon shell, were first infused with octopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with an insect's “fight or flight” instinct. When exposed to infrared laser light, the nanoparticles then emit chemicals to stimulate brain activity related to a locust's olfactory senses. This then made it easier for scientists to locate this specific neuronal activity and use the (previously unreliable) electrodes to identify chemicals in a common laboratory test set.

[Related: This surgical smart knife can detect endometrial cancer cells in seconds.]

For now, these first demonstrations are more of a proof of concept than anything else. Talk with New scientist On Thursday, Singamaneni explains that the system currently only works in closed laboratories, and not in real time. Nonetheless, Singamaneni's team hopes that further research and experimentation can one day develop a method for creating small swarms of cyborg-enhanced locusts that can detect medical problems in humans, locate explosives or to focus on environmental contaminants.

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