SGU Science Pic Of The Week: Bio-Bot Stingray
No, This is not that weird flying creature from classic Trek that infected Spock and killed Kirk’s brother.. This is an incredible construct called a bio-hybrid machine or bio-bot. It consists of silicon gel, some gold, and genetically engineered rat heart cells. It’s designed to move towards light and undulate just like a real sting-ray.
This latest example of nature-inspired robotics was created by researchers at Harvard University’s Department of Bioengineering and Applied Sciences. At 1/2 inch long and weighing 10 grams, it may no be impressive in size but it can move realistically towards light and even be steered by changing the properties of the light hitting it.
So how does one even begin creating this? You start by putting silicone gel in a mold to get the right shape. This is the same type of silicone used in the outer layers of breast implants. Then you add a gold skeleton inside. This was used so that when the bio-bot bends, it would tend to bend back into its original shape. It may sound like an expensive skeleton but this was pretty small after all and gold just happens to have the ideal combination of stiffness and bendiness for this application.
The next part is another layer of silicone but it’s super-thin. This is here for two reasons. It prevents the next and final layer from touching the gold and it has micro-patterns in it from the mold that help the final layer grow in the precise arrangement required.
And finally, comes the final stratum on the underside of our robot-stingray…mouse heart cells. These are aligned in back and forth patterns so when muscle flexing starts, they move the silicone pectoral fins in an efficient sting-ray-like manner.
Were you thinking that they just grabbed some heart cells and threw them on the bio-bot? You’re so silly.
These are special genetically engineered cells that are tweaked so they respond to specific frequencies of light. This was accomplished through the new and mightily promising science of optogenetics.
To take this baby out for a spin, researchers only needed to flash 2 sources of light, one on each fin. To make the bio-bot turn, all they had to do was change one light so that it was brighter or flashed more often on one of the fins.
Pretty slick, huh?
You won’t see these soon in your pool or local lake, however. These robo-stingrays need special nutrients in the fluid. They are living tissue after all. Perhaps equally important, these cells are just heart cells. There are no immune cells, so if you put them in your tub say…Bacteria and fungi would attack them.
The potential benefits of such research are of course pretty cool. Besides general robotics advances, it can be used to learn more about heart cells, in fact one of the researchers goals is to create artificial hearts for kids who need them.
Adam Feinberg, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University said
“By using living cells they were able to build this robot in a way that you just couldn’t replicate with any other material…You couldn’t replicate this movement with on-board electronics and actuators while keeping it lightweight and maneuverable. And it really is remote controlled, like a TV set.”
The real question is…What is this thing actually? Is this bio-bot alive?
Kit Parker, the bio-engineer at Harvard who led the team says:
“I think we’ve got a biological life-form here…A machine, but a biological life form. I wouldn’t call it an organism, because it can’t reproduce, but it certainly is alive.”
Whatever this is, I can’t wait to see what version 5.0 can do. Just don’t infect Spock with it.
Video of this bio-bot in motion
Image Credit: Karaghen Hudson and Michael Rosnach