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JUL/AUG 2013  

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Cells power biological machines

Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed miniature “bio-bots.” They’re soft, biocompatible, about 7mm long and they are able to walk by themselves.


Designing non-electronic biological machines has been a riddle that scientists at the interface of biology and engineering have struggled to solve, according to the research team at the university. The walking bio-bots is the team’s effort to forward-engineer functional machines using only hydrogel, heart cells and a 3-D printer.

Watch the video below for a demonstration on how the bio-bots work.


With an altered design, the bio-bots could be customized for specific applications in medicine, energy or the environment. The research team, led by U. of I. professor Rashid Bashir, published its results in the journal Scientific Reports.

“The idea is that, by being able to design with biological structures, we can harness the power of cells and nature to address challenges facing society,” said Bashir, an Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering. “As engineers, we’ve always built things with hard materials, materials that are very predictable. Yet there are a lot of applications where nature solves a problem in such an elegant way. Can we replicate some of that if we can understand how to put things together with cells?”

The key to the bio-bots’ locomotion is asymmetry. Resembling a tiny springboard, each bot has one long, thin leg resting on a stout supporting leg. The thin leg is covered with rat cardiac cells. When the heart cells beat, the long leg pulses, propelling the bio-bot forward.

bio-bot

Miniature bio-bots developed at the University of Illinois are made of hydrogel and heart cells, but can walk on their own. Photo credit: Elise A. Corbin.

The team uses a 3-D printing method common in rapid prototyping to make the main body of the bot from hydrogel, a soft gelatin-like polymer. This approach allowed the researchers to explore various conformations and adjust their design for maximum speed. The ease of quickly altering design also will allow them to build and test other configurations with an eye toward potential applications.

For example, Bashir envisions the bio-bots being used for drug screening or chemical analysis, since the bots’ motion can indicate how the cells are responding to the environment. By integrating cells that respond to certain stimuli, such as chemical gradients, the bio-bots could be used as sensors.

Next, the team will work to enhance control and function, such as integrating neurons to direct motion or cells that respond to light. They are also working on creating robots of different shapes, different numbers of legs, and robots that could climb slopes or steps.