Researchers Build Microscopic Biohybrid Robots Propelled by Muscles and Nerves
Arnold Lander posted on September 27, 2019 |


An artistic rendering of a new generation of biobots—soft robotic devices powered by skeletal muscle tissue that is stimulated by onboard motor neurons. (Image courtesy of Michael Vincent.)
An artistic rendering of a new generation of biobots—soft robotic devices powered by skeletal muscle tissue that is stimulated by onboard motor neurons. (Image courtesy of Michael Vincent.)

Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a biohybrid robot powered by neuromuscular tissue that responds to light. Biohybrid robots are the result of integrating synthetic material and living tissue such as muscle, nerves or bone to produce a device that is capable of independent motion. The addition of neuronal action to control muscle tissue represents a significant step forward in the quest for autonomous biobots.

In 2014 researchers developed the first self-propelled biobots powered by cardiac muscle tissue taken from rats. These early designs, modeled after sperm cells, had a single tail and could swim but could not sense their environment or make decisions.

In this new study, computational models were used to optimize the skeleton design. The previous single-tailed structure was replaced with a new two-tailed model, and the length of the tails was also adjusted. These design improvements resulted in an order of magnitude increase in swimming speed from the previous single-tailed version.

The robot was completed by applying an optogenetic cell culture derived from mouse stem cells adjacent to the muscle tissue. In this process, the neurons advanced toward the muscle and formed neural muscular junctions, with the robot assembling entirely on its own.

The biobot team: (from left) Professor Tahir Saif, graduate student Omar Aydin, graduate student Xiastian Zhang, Professor Mattia Gazzola, graduate student Gelson J. Pagan-Diaz, and Dean of Granger College of Engineering, Rashid Bashir.
The biobot team: (from left) Professor Tahir Saif, graduate student Omar Aydin, graduate student Xiastian Zhang, Professor Mattia Gazzola, graduate student Gelson J. Pagan-Diaz, and Dean of Granger College of Engineering, Rashid Bashir.

The success of this study helps set the stage for the future development of engineered, multicellular living systems with the ability to respond intelligently to environmental cues. These living machines could potentially find applications in the fields of bioengineering, medicine and material science.

The paper “Neuromuscular actuation of biohybrid motile bots” is available here.


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