Tiny robot moves with stem cell generated muscles and nerves

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Tiny robot is powered by muscle and nerve cells.
Image: University of Illinois

The idea of integrating robots with human tissues just took a big step forward. A new robot from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign moves when exposed to light thanks to real skeletal muscle and nerve cells.

Scientists working on the project used mouse stem cells to generate real tissues that are integrated with the robot’s non-living parts. Though it is a rudimentary invention, the advancement is huge for the soft robotics industry.

Smart Swimmers

At first glance, the Illinois robot might look more like a Thanksgiving wishbone than a functional object. Nonetheless, the one-millimeter wide bot is fully capable of swimming along in fluids and soft gels.

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The team reportedly drew inspiration from sperm cells when creating the design of their robot. Project engineer Taher Saif says, “Just like twins are not truly identical, two machines designed to perform the same function will not be the same. One may move faster or heal from damage differently from the other — a unique attribute of living machines.”

Ultimately, the team landed on a dual flagellar design that allows the robot to propel itself forward. It consists of a soft scaffolding purposely chosen because of its compatibility with living cells. Then, the scientists used stem cells to generate living skeletal muscle and nerve tissue to connect to the scaffolding.

When exposed to light, the neuron sends a signal to the muscle cell that tells it to contract and relax repeatedly. This motion causes the flagella to move, thus propelling the robot forward.

The team’s research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.

Massive Implications

In its current state, the tiny robot isn’t really that impressive. After all, it’s too small to actually do anything. On top of that, the robot can only function in a simple binary state of “on” or “off.”

However, the tiny bot deserves all of the attention and respect in the world. The project isn’t so much about this specific robot but the glimpse that it provides into the future of the bio-engineering field.

The human body is truly the world’s most efficient machine. By demonstrating that skeletal muscle can be integrated with machinery, the team from Illinois has opened countless doors to future innovations. Without a doubt, their work will inspire projects like artificial hands that can relay sensory signals, biomechanical eyeballs, and more.

Meanwhile, the team hopes that future iterations of its swimming robot will be able to regenerate from damage. This would also be a huge advancement for the robotics field.

In the coming years, it will be thrilling to see what new integrations of cells and machines arise that will help make life better for everyone.