As one reader points out on the comments board of a related Design News article, combining living tissue with mechanical components sounds like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein story written almost 200 years ago. But the Medusoid jellyfish-like creature described in that article, which combines engineered rat heart muscle tissue with a silicone muscle structure, isn't alone. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania have engineered skeletal muscles they will use to build robots that move like animals -- or people.
The team has genetically engineered muscle cells that flex in response to light. They plan to use these to create small, lightweight robots that are highly articulated, and that can move with the strength, flexibility, and fine motor movements of living creatures. The researchers are among the still small number of engineers in the emerging field of biorobotics.
Harry Asada, a professor of engineering in MIT's department of mechanical engineering, along with postdoc Mahmut Selman Sakar and professor Roger Kamm, chose skeletal muscle for their robot design because it's stronger than cardiac or smooth muscle. Using electricity to stimulate the muscle tissue to make it move -- a technique used for the Medusoid as well as Frankenstein's monster -- could bog down small robots with electrodes and their required power supply. Instead, the researchers turned to optogenetics, which involves genetically modifying neurons so they respond to short light pulses.
To date, optogenetic techniques had been used to stimulate cardiac muscle with laser light, but not skeletal muscle. The MIT team cultured skeletal muscle cells and genetically modified them to express a light-activated protein. After fusing the cells into long muscle fibers, they exposed them to blue light in 20-millisecond pulses, making them contract, both individually and together. When a beam of light shone on one fiber, only that fiber contracted. Larger beams directed to multiple fibers made them all contract simultaneously. Asada then expanded the technique to three-dimensional muscle tissue, with similar results. Watch a video demonstrating the genetically engineered skeletal muscles here.
The MIT team worked with Christopher Chen, a professor in Penn's department of bioengineering, who designed a micromechanical chip to test static and dynamic stresses on the light-sensitive skeletal tissue. The engineered tissue is capable of a wide range of motions, making it useful for a number of applications besides robotics, such as medical devices and navigation. One medical robotic device might be a robotic endoscope, said Asada. "We can put 10 degrees of freedom in a limited space, less than one millimeter," he said. "There's no actuator that can do that kind of job right now."
The researchers describe their results in an article (subscription only) in the journal Lab on a Chip. Other team members include MIT's Devin Neal, Yinqing Li and Ron Weiss, and Penn's Thomas Boudou and Michael Borochin. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the RESBIO Technology Resource for Polymeric Biomaterials, the Center for Engineering Cells and Regeneration of the University of Pennsylvania, and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.
It's really pretty incredible what's percolating in the research labs when it comes to robotics, particularly in the area of biomechanics. I could see huge applications for this technology as part of the advances already happening on the prosthetics front. Having a prosthetic leg that can replicate some natural human movements would be a reall boon for patients looking to get back into their active lifestyles. Amazing stuff.
I agree Beth - I just watched the video and it was amazing how the material contracted under the light stimulus. The whole concept reminds me of "Data" from Star Trek The Next Generation - it looks like the beginnings of androids and prosthetics would be such a wonderful application. It amazes me how much the futuristic vision of Star Trek is being played out today. I wonder if there are any bioethical issues that willl be raised from this type of engineering...
I agree pretty incredible. Ann, any idea when MIT and U of PA plan to have the first working model of their genetically engineered robot? Are there plans on using the engineered skeletal muscles in humans?
Rob, you're asking the same excellent question Jack asked regarding the engineered tissue in the Medusoid. As I responded to him, I think the answer lies more in the realm of biotech than robotics, at least for now. Does anyone else know?
Here's an icky answer for how genetically engineered tissue is kept alive. First, just from being a sci-fi fan I knew the tissue had to be grown and preserved in some kind of artificial, nutrient-rich medium. This article on creating artificial meat (hence the "ick" factor) has some answers on how that's done: http://suite101.com/article/lab-grown-hamburgers-to-hit-the-market-next-year-a397077 But does that mean that skeletal muscle tissue on a robot is somehow immersed in a liquid nutrient bath?
Rob, if you mean the use of animal tissue to create genetically engineered tissue, that practice is pretty regular. So are the protests by PETA et al. But this story is all about robots, not using this stuff on humans.
Are they robots or androids? We're not exactly sure. Each talking, gesturing Geminoid looks exactly like a real individual, starting with their creator, professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University in Japan.
Truchard will be presented the award at the 2014 Golden Mousetrap Awards ceremony during the co-located events Pacific Design & Manufacturing, MD&M West, WestPack, PLASTEC West, Electronics West, ATX West, and AeroCon.
For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This discussion will examine what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.