VSU biomechanics professor explores marine life

to develop cutting-edge tech

By John Stephen

What if creatures that have existed since prehistoric times were the key to unlocking technology the world has never seen before?

What if a deep-sea worm could teach us how to create a smart rope that automatically ties itself around victims in rescue situations?

What if the anatomy of a squid could be used to improve the lives of diabetics? Or maybe a robot fashioned after an octopus tentacle that could traverse battlefields and rubble looking for survivors?

Dr. Theodore Uyeno, an associate professor in the Department of Biology at Valdosta State University, has spent his life on a quest to turn those “what-ifs” into reality.

As a biomechanicist, Uyeno studies the biological structures of living creatures to figure out how they work.

"It’s kind of like reverse mechanical engineering,” Uyeno, 44, said. “Mechanical engineers are trying to build something useful, some tool that they need. Biomechanicists find existing structures in the natural world that they don’t understand and take them apart and describe them.”

Where most people see something common and mundane, Uyeno sees a mystery waiting to be solved.

“Normal engineers, if they want to make a skyscraper, know the exact bending stiffness of beams and the load tolerances of concrete,” he said. “You can bolt things together, and you have a pretty good idea of how they’ll function. But something as simple as our own tongue — how does that thing work? It can become rigid enough that you can use it to shell sunflower seeds at a baseball game, yet there are no bones inside of it. It’s a soft tissue structure that — by the organization of its muscle, connective tissue fibers, and the nerves that control it — can do some pretty amazing things.”

Biomechanics has been around for thousands of years, ever since the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle described animal movement using mechanical terms in the fourth century B.C. Other well-known thinkers of history — including Leonard da Vinci (1452-1519) and Galileo (1564-1642) — contributed to biomechanics by viewing the human body as a machine. But the field truly caught fire in the 20th century and began to fuel many human advancements, including better prosthetics for those who lost limbs during World War I and II, more ergonomical tools and working conditions for laborers, and more efficient devices, such as wheelchairs, that improved mobility for those with disabilities.

The field has changed throughout time as technology has progressed. Modern biomechanics, often referred to as comparative biomechanics, is a unique mix of biology, mechanical and electrical engineering, physics, and computer science.

Uyeno, who joined VSU in 2011, specializes in the biomechanics of marine invertebrates. He believes in this work for the sake of science itself, for the sake of understanding how the world works, but he is also always looking for practical applications of his research. Much of his work has specifically centered on translating the biomechanics of marine life into cutting-edge robotics and smart technology.

One animal he studies is the hagfish, a two-foot-long, worm-like creature that wriggles through oceans all around the world. It has no bones and only one nostril and is known for secreting large amounts of slime when it feels threatened. The fibers in the slime suck up water and can effectively stave off larger predators like sharks when the slime is squirted into the predator’s gills.

Uyeno is particularly interested in the hagfish’s ability to tie itself into complex knots and manipulate those knots with ease. If he can unravel the biomechanics of those knots, he believes a high-tech rope could be created that could tie itself around a person who has fallen down a hole or mine shaft.

"Where most people see something common and mundane, Uyeno sees a mystery waiting to be solved."
"Where most people see something common and mundane, Uyeno sees a
mystery waiting to be solved."

Uyeno’s mind works differently than most people’s. He is able to find connections between vastly different subjects and forge innovative ties through his research.

When he was living in Flagstaff, Arizona, for his post-doctoral research at Northern Arizona University, Uyeno befriended a Navajo student named Kenneth. One day, Kenneth told Uyeno that his diabetes had finally caught up with him. The disease had reduced the elasticity in his veins, preventing blood from flowing properly throughout his body. His foot had become gangrenous due to blood pooling there and starving his tissues of oxygen. Doctors were going to remove the foot just before the Thanksgiving holiday.

In sympathizing with Kenneth, Uyeno’s mind wandered to the anatomy of another animal he studies: the squid.

“Why do squids need three hearts?” Uyeno asked, remembering that day in Arizona. “We seem to get along just fine with one heart. But you have to look back in evolutionary time for that to make any sense.

“It turns out, squids and octopuses evolved from the ancestors of slugs and snails. But squids, with their jet locomotion, are extremely fast animals and high-performance athletes. That’s not so much the case with snails. You see them slowly crawl along, and that’s about as fast as they can go. And they only have one heart. That heart slowly squishes the blood through a low-pressure system and may only beat every once in a while. This works out well for snails because they don’t need as much oxygen and sugars going to their cells.

“But could you imagine being a squid evolving from a slug? You’re trying to be a fast-performance athlete, and yet you’re kind of hobbled by having this one relatively weak little heart. So these proto-squids produced accessory hearts, pulsatile arteries that became enlarged over evolutionary time in order to pump blood back to the system. Now they have one heart that pumps oxygenated blood to the tissues, and two accessory hearts that receive blood from the tissues and pump them through the gills in order to re-oxygenate their system and support their speed.”

Uyeno realized that, in a way, Kenneth was having the same problem as the early squids.

“These squids just developed another heart,” he said. “I thought, wow, we could do that.

“It turns out I got scooped on that idea because there’s already such a thing called a Left Ventricular Assist Device, which is basically a suitcase-sized thing that pressurizes the blood to help a person’s circulatory system work properly. But it’s big; it’s bulky; it’s expensive. It doesn’t work particularly well.

“Octopuses and squids started out with regular veins, but they became pulsatile over a while. They became essentially hyper elastic, and so I thought part of the problem that we’re having here is a loss of elasticity in a system that otherwise works pretty well. So I came up with a stent of sorts that had some extra elasticity to it that could be implanted directly into a person’s veins. It isn’t pulsatile, so it’s not a pump, but just that little bit of extra elasticity has the potential to significantly improve blood flow.”

Uyeno received a provisional patent for his implantable medical device the year he started at VSU.

“Something as simple as our own tongue — how does that thing work?"

Around the same time he was using squid biomechanics to unlock improvements for diabetics, his postdoctoral advisor at Northern Arizona University, Dr. Kiisa Nishikawa, was examining the inner workings of human muscles. When looking at how muscles contract, she theorized that a protein called Titin gives muscles some elasticity.

“Titin is an intrinsic spring inside the sarcomere, or the molecular ratcheting mechanism, of muscle fibers, and it gives your muscle the ability to recoil just a little bit,” Uyeno said. “And that slight recoil actually stores up energy between contractile twitches. So when we tried to model that physically by putting together motors and springs, we found that we could increase the efficiency of that motor by about 20 percent.”

This elasticity in muscles had never been described before Nishikawa and Uyeno’s research. They received an international patent for their new “sarcomotor” soon after his patent for the medical stent. The sarcomotor has found a home in the inventions of biophysicist and engineer Hugh Herr. Herr, an avid rock climber, lost both his legs to frostbite after being caught in a blizzard while climbing a New Hampshire mountain in 1982.

Since then, Herr has dedicated himself to creating bionic limbs that are among the most advanced in the world, providing new levels of mobility and ease for amputees. The artificial leg he created plugs into a person’s nerve endings and contains a dozen tiny electric motors controlled by an even greater number of onboard computers that allow for incredibly fine-tuned adjustments when a person is moving.

The only problem was that these prosthetics felt too digitized and not natural enough. It was missing the passive elastic feel that human muscles offer. So Herr is now trying to incorporate the sarcomotor into his next generation of prosthetics to make the bionic limbs feel more human.

Before all of Uyeno’s inventions and research, his childhood was defined by insatiable curiosity. He grew up in Calgary, Canada, the country in which his father’s family was interned as Japanese-Canadians during World War II. His mother grew up in Slovakia, and in what Uyeno calls “a very ‘Sound of Music’-like ordeal,” her family fled the Nazis during the war, escaping through Vienna, Austria, and eventually taking a converted troopship to Canada. His parents met in Ottawa but moved to Calgary because his father, a paleontologist, accepted a job at the Geological Survey of Canada, a position he held until his retirement.

One of Uyeno’s very first memories is visiting the Vancouver Aquarium while on vacation. He remembers walking through the tide pools, feeling the sticky sea anemones, and turning over a rock to see a small crab scuttling about.

“That’s really what hooked me,” he said. “It was just, ‘Oh my goodness, look at all these tiny things moving around. What are they doing, and how do they do that?’”

As a child, he was always fascinated by creatures he saw in the world. That fascination was fostered by his dad’s paleontology work.Uyeno frequently hung out in his dad’s lab, and to him, all the research technicians were family.

In high school, Uyeno initially leaned toward a vocational track with plans of becoming a mechanic, an interest he had picked up from his father.

“Then I realized being a repair mechanic is simply going in and finding the problem, pulling out the part, and putting a new one in,” he said. “Because of my curiosity, I wasn’t crazy about that. I wanted to discover, to invent. I guess you could say it’s an immaturity because I see it in my 9- and 4-year-old boys. They’re always asking, ‘How’s that work?’ And that just never flushed out of my system.”

Uyeno was never interested in just one thing. Even now, his hobbies include beekeeping, archery, sailing, blacksmithing, and, along with his eldest son, amateur radio.

He attended the University of Calgary to earn a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences and a Master of Science in zoology. He then moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study under Dr. Bill Kier, a pioneer in muscle mechanics, and earn his Doctor of Philosophy in comparative biomechanics.

His research has taken him all around the globe, from the Arctic Circle to the Sea of Cortez off the shores of Mexico. It was in those waters that a Mexican fisherman taught him how to hunt squids. The skill came in handy in early 2011 when National Geographic agreed to fund a squid expedition if Uyeno agreed to help film a documentary on “cannibal squid” in the process. (The NatGeo crew captured one squid attacking and eating another squid, something Uyeno said is actually very rare.)

On this trip, Uyeno was particularly interested in studying the bite force of squids.

“Squids and octopuses have giant, parrot-like beaks,” he said. “They have extremely powerful jaws, but the interesting about them is there’s no jaw joint. It’s just two beaks suspended in muscle. The organization of that muscle is very interesting because the biting force is far stronger than what humans can produce.

“These beaks can can literally sever a finger, but they can also very finely manipulate tiny things with the tips. They are capable of all sorts of different force levels.”

Understanding the nervous structure of these beaks — something Uyeno is still working on — could result in robotic manipulators capable of both a delicate touch and ferocious crushing power.

"I see it in my 9- and 4-year-old boys. They’re always asking, ‘How’s that work?’ And that just never flushed out of my system."

"I see it in my 9- and 4-year-old boys. They’re always asking, ‘How’s that work?’ And that just never flushed out of my system.”

While pursuing his Ph.D., Uyeno served as a research member of one of his advisor’s projects that was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), a branch of the United States Department of Defense that is tasked with turning science fiction into science fact.

In Uyeno’s case, the DARPA researchers were attempting to create autonomous, functional, military-grade robotics. One such creation was called the Octarm, a robot that mimicked an octopus tentacle.

“The original idea was that this thing would be able to roll through 9/11-like rubble on tank treads,” Uyeno said. “They even had dreams of the trunk detaching and slithering along on the ground. Original designs of what the military wanted looked very much like Marvel cartoon comics.”

Attempting to create an octopus robot presented major problems for the researchers because an octopus arm is not a straightforward structure of bones and joints. It is essentially an infinite number of small bones connected by an infinite number of joints. Mapping out the kinematics of such a structure proved difficult and showed how “natural creatures can represent future feats of engineering,” Uyeno said.

Although the Octarm project is no longer active, it provided a solid foundation for more advanced robotics technology that exists today.

Uyeno has received more than a million dollars in support of his research, including a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. He has also been awarded many accolades while at VSU, including VSU’s Presidential Excellence Award for Research and the Reinhard Rieger Award in Zoomorphology, an international award presented by the Institute of Zoology in Austria.

After years and years of scientific work and discovery, he is still passionate about finding the “hidden gems” in “all those weird, wonderful organisms we never talk about.”

When he is not teaching his anatomy and physiology, invertebrate zoology, or comparative biomechanics courses, he can often be found in his lab on the second floor of VSU’s Hugh C. Bailey Science Center.

The room is full of high-tech gizmos and gadgets. There is a laser cutter, a high-resolution X-ray machine, and a 3-D printer. Hagfish caught from three different parts of the world swim around in a carefully regulated tank. A full machine shop and electronics lab allow Uyeno to build devices he may need for his work. Diving gear hangs inside cabinets alongside high-speed cameras that can capture fast animal strikes.

“The reason I like science, and the reason I’m a professor and the head of my own research lab, is because I’m not a very good directions follower,” Uyeno said. “I find I’m at my creative best when I give myself the freedom to go down rabbit holes, so that’s how I set up this lab, for people to be able to do things that excite them.”

Uyeno has opened up his lab and his expertise to VSU graduate and undergraduate students, allowing them to work with him for academic credit and gain valuable hands-on research experience in the process. He has opened doors for students to study in the field and present their findings at conferences and through professional, peer-reviewed manuscripts. His students regularly garner awards at VSU’s annual Undergraduate Research Symposium.

“Students bring an energy and a freshness and a drive,” he said. “When I’m not feeling it some days, they pick me up, and hopefully vice versa. It’s all about opening doors to new knowledge and training to help in their future jobs. And they really pay all that back in the creativity that they bring to the job. I’m not sure I could do it without them.”

Day in and day out, Uyeno and his students are continuing to wrangle hagfish and study octopus beaks in jars in pursuit of new scientific discoveries. The next endeavor on the horizon is exploring not only the form and function of deep-sea creatures but also the neurobiology of how those structures and movements are controlled.

“That’s my next field, my next interest,” Uyeno said. “How does that nerve center in the octopus beaks control all these complicated muscles to produce the movements that we see in the structures that we understand? We can build limbs and heart stents, but how do we control them?

“While it is difficult to commit to this level of research, I do it because I’ve got a fire burning in my belly,” Uyeno said. “The need to ask questions, and the joy of rigorously pursuing their answers, form the core of my identity. I’m always curious. How does that hagfish loop itself into a knot? How does an octopus actually move its beak without a jaw joint? This job and lab give me the freedom to investigate the things that I cherish. That ability to express and share creativity is of great value to me.”