Ken Kennedy Institute member, Jacob Robinson of Rice’s Brown School of Engineering and Celina Juliano of the University of California Davis, have won a $1 million Keck Foundation grant. Robinson and his colleagues are putting their faith in a very small animal, the freshwater cnidarian Hydra vulgaris, a tiny tentacled creature that has long been a focus of study in the Robinson and Juliano labs. Because they are small, squishy and transparent, they’re easy to manipulate and measure through Robinson’s custom microfluidic platforms.
“We’ve built a lot of the infrastructure to work with the animals in the lab to measure their neural activity and their behaviors,” Robinson said. “We also use computational techniques to automate the process, which allows us to look at many animals in parallel and get large quantities of data.”
“The next big leap will be to edit the animal’s nervous systems, and that’s what this award will help support,” he said. “For example, if we want to create a synthetic connection between two neurons, we could make specific neurons in the animal express a neuropeptide signaling molecule. We could then engineer another group of neurons, or even the muscle cells, to express the receptor for that signaling molecule.
“Then we’ll have made a new organism with a connection between two cells that don’t normally connect,” he said. “In principal, we can build on this concept to make more complicated networks and designer neural circuits. As an engineer, I like to think of these connections between neurons like electronic circuits. If we can wire them up by design we should be able to program behaviors from scratch.”