Biotechnology Students Learn to Control Insect Cyborgs
Biotechnology Students Learn to Control Insect Cyborgs


by Brandon T. Bisceglia ’14
UNH Today Contributing Writer

Ashlee Junier ’16 held Teddy the cockroach gently in her hands, letting him wander over her fingers.

“Their feet are kind of sticky,” she said.

But Teddy is no ordinary cockroach. Junier and her classmates turned him and a few of his fellow roaches into cyborgs that follow the students’ commands.

The idea was hatched by Rosemary Whelan, coordinator of the biology and genetics and biotechnology programs at UNH, as a way to give her biotechnology class some real-life experience with an emerging field of research.


Students work with insect cyborgs.

Insect cyborgs have become a promising arena for scientists. Groups such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have been exploring their potential in disasters, rescues and reconnaissance. Other groups are using similar methods to study the insects themselves.

Whelan said one of the main benefits to using small animals is that they generate their own power.

“A fly uses its own energy,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to manufacture robots with small enough batteries that can do what they do.”

The class used kits supplied by the resource website Backyard Brains that consisted of circuit board “backpacks,” LED lights, small lithium batteries and electrodes and, of course, several adult members of Blaberus discoidalis, a one-and-a-half-inch species native to Central America.

The first step to creating the cyborgs was to do surgery on the roaches. The class broke into groups, each of which tag-teamed a roach. The backpacks were inserted with a small hole poked just behind their heads. Then their antennae were clipped, and the electrode wires were fed into them.

The backpacks are Bluetooth enabled, allowing a smartphone app to send a signal directly to one antenna or the other. The signals essentially mimic what the roach would feel if it brushed up against a wall, telling it to “turn left” or “turn right.”

Junier, a Dartmouth, Mass., native majoring in forensic science, pre-medicine and biotechnology, was glad that her group’s experiment with Teddy went well. They posted video of Teddy scurrying around, changing direction at their command.

There were some challenges along the way. Nadine Lebek ’17, a forensic science, genetics and biotechnology major from Massapequa Park, N.Y., had to overcome the “ick factor” for the project.

“I hate bugs,” she said.

But even Lebek saw value in what they did. Whelan guided the class through an extensive discussion on the ethics of working with animals prior to the project and proceeded only after everyone agreed it was worthwhile.

“The roaches probably weren’t thrilled,” Lebek said. “But it’s important to understand how this works.”

Dylan Stenlake ’16, a biology and forensic science major from Pen Argyl, Penn., said one of the wires in the antennae came out of his group’s roach, breaking the connection.

That didn’t stymie his enthusiasm, though. “The one that worked I thought was really cool,” he said.

Stenlake eventually wants to be a teacher, and said he appreciates these kinds of hands-on experiences. “I think that interactive projects like these are something that more teachers should incorporate into their classes,” he said.

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