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3D-printed robots dance to the beat of a rat's heart

Posting in Design

Merging the artificial and biological, U.S. researchers have created robots that move to the beat of rat heart cells.

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created the "biobots" by using a 3D printer to create a soft, flexible hydrogel scaffold, which was then laced with cardiac cells from rats. The tiny 7mm robots resemble a diving board and are equipped with one long and one short leg. When the heart cells beat, it causes the longer leg to pulse -- propelling the robot forward.

Traveling at approximately 236 micrometers per second, the hybrid robots could eventually be customized for applications in medicine and the environment.

"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 and leader of the study.

"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 team envision the robots being used for applications including drug screening or chemical analysis -- since the robot's motion can be used to indicate how the cells respond to different environmental pressures. By including different chemical compositions within the rat cells, the biobots could also become sensors.

"Our goal is to see if we can get this thing to move toward chemical gradients, so we could eventually design something that can look for a specific toxin and then try to neutralize it." Bashir commented.

"Now you can think about a sensor that’s moving and constantly sampling and doing something useful, in medicine and the environment. The applications could be many, depending on what cell types we use and where we want to go with it."

The team plans to continue developing the biobots to enhance control and expand their functions, potentially including the integration of neurons to direct motion or making the cells respond to light. They are also working on creating robots of different shapes, different numbers of legs, and robots that could climb slopes.

A video of the robots in action is available here, and a paper documenting the research is available in Nature's Scientific Reports.

(via University of Illinois)

Image credit: Elise Corbin / University of Illinois

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— By on November 16, 2012, 9:29 AM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure