They're only about a centimeter in size

Tiny robots powered by muscle cells could one day take care of toxin neutralization and improve biological control systems.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have created tiny "bio-bots" which run on muscle cells and are controlled with electrical pulses. When current is applied to their bio-based muscular engines, the robots can walk across a surface or even through a liquid.

Inspired by the muscle-tendon-bone complex, the researchers built the centimeter-sized bio-bots with a backbone made of 3D printed hydrogel. This backbone is strong, yet flexible enough to bend like a joint. Two posts serve to anchor a strip of muscle to the backbone, like tendons attach muscle to bone. The posts also act as feet for the bio-bot.

The speed of the bio-bots is controlled by adjusting the frequency of the electric pulses. More specifically, higher frequency causes the muscle to contract faster and speeds up the bio-bot’s progress.

“Biological actuation driven by cells is a fundamental need for any kind of biological machine you want to build,” said study leader Rashid Bashir, Abel Bliss Professor and head of Bioengineering at the U. of I. 

“We’re trying to integrate these principles of engineering with biology in a way that can be used to design and develop biological machines and systems for environmental and medical applications. Biology is tremendously powerful, and if we can somehow learn to harness its advantages for useful applications, it could bring about a lot of great things.”

Prior to these bio-bots, the researchers created another set of bio-bots that walk on their own thanks to the power from beating heart cells of rats. However, researchers couldn't control the motion of the bots because heart cells constantly contract.

That's why they moved on to skeletal muscle cells, which are much more easily controlled. 

Moving forward, the researchers would like to integrate neurons so the bio-bots can be steered in different directions with light or chemical gradients. They also hope to design a hydrogel backbone that allows the bio-bot to move in different directions based on different signals. Also, new shapes and designs will be researched quickly via 3D printing.

“The goal of 'building with biology' is not a new one - tissue engineering researchers have been working for many years to reverse engineer native tissue and organs, and this is very promising for medical applications,” said graduate student Ritu Raman, co-first author of the paper. “But why stop there? We can go beyond this by using the dynamic abilities of cells to self-organize and respond to environmental cues to forward engineer non-natural biological machines and systems."

These certainly aren't the first biological robots. In 2010, Harvard researchers debuted self-assembling biological nanodevices for medical purposes.

Earlier this year, University of Illinois researchers created part man, part machine spermbots, which were touted as the first synthetic structures that can traverse the viscous fluids of biological environments on their own. 

Source: Illinois News Bureau

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