Implants Create Insect Cyborgs

Cornell University researchers have succeeded in implanting electronic circuit probes into tobacco hornworms as early pupae. The hornworms pass through the chrysalis stage to mature into long-lived moths whose muscles can be controlled with the implanted electronics. The research was showcased at MEMS 2008, an international academic conference on Micro-Electrico-Mechanical Systems that took place from January 13-17 in Tucson, AZ.

The pupae insertion state was found to yield the best results. The resulting moth, a microsystem-controlled insect, has a circuit board protruding from the top of its midsection. Probes are inserted into the dorsoventral and dorsolongitudinal flight muscles. CT images show components of high absorbance indicating tissue growth around the probe.

The research also indicated the most favorable and least favorable times for insertion of control devices. The overall size of the circuit board is just 8x7mm, with a total weight of about 500 mg. The capacity of the battery is 16 mAh, and weighs 240 mg.

A driving voltage of 5 volts causes the tobacco hornworm blade muscles (two pairs) to move for flight and maneuvering.

The insect cyborgs are part of a program called HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect MEMS), a DARPA program initiated by Program Manager Dr. Amit Lal. The ultimate goal of the HI-MEMS program is to provide insect cyborgs that can demonstrate controlled flight; the insects would be used in a variety of military and homeland security applications.

HI-MEMS program director Amit Lal credits science fiction writer Thomas Easton with the idea. Lal read Easton's 1990 novel Sparrowhawk, in which animals enlarged by genetic engineering (called Roachsters) were outfitted with implanted control systems.

Dr. Easton, a professor of science at Thomas College, sees a number of applications for HI-MEMS insects.

Moths are extraordinarily sensitive to sex attractants, so instead of giving bank robbers money treated with dye, they could use sex attractants instead. Then, a moth-based HI-MEMS could find the robber by following the scent." "[Also,] with genetic engineering Darpa could replace the sex attractant receptor on the moth antennae with receptors for other things, like explosives, drugs or toxins," said Easton.

DARPA had better be careful with its insect army; in Easton's novel, hackers are able to gain control of genetically engineered animals by hacking the controller chips used in their implanted control structures.

If you are interested in one dark-side view of how this kind of invention could be used by corporations for advertising, see the madcap blurbflies from Jeff Noon's excellent 2000 sf novel Nymphomation.

Learn more about Hybrid Insect MEMS Sought By DARPA. Via Robot Watch.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of - where science meets fiction

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Bill Christensen catalogues the inventions, technology and ideas of science fiction writers at his website, Technovelgy. He is a contributor to Live Science.