by Sam Cadwell
It seems most people are hardwired to find cockroaches disgusting, but this hasn’t stopped scientific research into these creepy crawlies. Soon, these bugs may be working for us. Thanks to some truly disturbing and magnificent advances in cyborg technology, we can implant wires into a live cockroach and then make it walk left or right with a smart phone app (1,2) and use its own blood to power the battery (5). Why would one want to make a roboroach, you may ask?
At North Carolina State University, scientists led by Dr. Alper Bozkurt have created “biobots” from Madagascar hissing cockroaches, computer chips, transmitters fitted with wireless receivers and microphones, and implanted wires that effectively control the insect, making the roaches detect noises nearby and move toward them (3). The idea is, after a disaster such as an earthquake, armies of roboroaches could be sent to the rescue. The cyborg roaches, contained within a perimeter determined by sensors, could crawl through treacherous conditions, locating survivors by sound. Roaches are naturally well-equip to survive disaster conditions and cyborgs are far cheaper than creating an equally small and functional 100% mechanical robot. One challenge to this approach is creating a way to filter important sounds, such as a cry for help, from unimportant sounds, like a loose shutter in the wind. Bozkurt’s team is working on this problem (4).
Researchers led by Dr. Edgar Lobaton have successfully used cyborg roaches to map disaster areas so the days of rescue roaches may be sooner rather than later. No word yet on what kind of public education campaign would be necessary to keep victims from smashing their repulsive would-be rescuer before GPS coordinates with their location can be sent back to extraction teams. If smashing the cockroach is not your concern, but instead a shudder runs through you at the idea of turning another living being into a remote-controlled cyborg, consider the Emerald Cockroach Wasp. Humans are not the first species to turn roaches into zombie slaves; in fact, nature has concocted an enemy of the cockroach so gruesome it makes one grateful our species has no parallel predator (6).
The Emerald Cockroach Wasp stings a roach to briefly paralyze it, then inserts its stinger into the exoskeleton of the roach’s head and delivers venom via a second sting to a specific never cluster in the roach’s brain. The paralysis wears off but the cockroach no longer has its escape instinct, allowing the wasp to lead it by its antenna to the wasp’s den. There the docile roach submits to having an egg lain on its abdomen. The wasp leaves, sealing the den behind herself. When the egg hatches, the baby eats its way inside the tranquil still-living roach organ by organ, saving the heart for last. Eventually maturing inside the zombie roach’s thorax, the fully grown, glittering metallic wasp emerges from the husk of its host, finally killing the undead roach after weeks of eating it alive. Check out the What Makes a Monster? (7) exhibition on display now until May 31, 2015 in the Science and Engineering Library for more info on jewel wasps and the links below for more info on cyborg roaches.