Biobots are hybrid machines that have muscles and nerves

Biobots move using light stimulation and could be used in the future to deliver medication or perform other tasks inside the human body

An artist rendering of a new generation of biobots developed by researchers at the University of Illinois--soft robotic devices powered by skeletal muscle tissue stimulated by on-board motor neurons. (Image source: Michael Vincent)

The next-generation of medical treatment and diagnosis likely will include tiny robots that can explore inside the human body and perform appointed tasks.

To drive this technological aim, researchers at the University of Illinois have developed soft, biological robotic devices that are self-driven using light-stimulated neuromuscular tissue and have intelligence, memory, and learning ability. The work brings researchers a step closer toward the development of autonomous biobots.

“This is the first milestone towards intelligent biorobots that make themselves through self assembly,” project leader Taher Saif, a mechanical science and engineering professor from the University of Illinois, told Design News.

“Muscle cells mixed with an extra cellular matrix is dropped on the tail part, where muscle cells form the muscle tissue by self assembly,” Saif told Design News. “Neurons are placed on the head part of the swimmer from where they spread out and form junctions with the muscle. These neurons then fire and make the muscle contract.”

The researchers published a paper on their recent work in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Forming a neural network

The recent work is a continuation of Saif’s research on similar technology. In 2014, research teams led by Saif and a colleague, bioengineering professor Rashid Bashir, developed the first self-propelled biohybrid robots that could swim and walk, powered by beating cardiac muscle cells derived from rats.

While those robots could move on their own using biomaterials, they couldn’t sense the environment or make decisions, Saif said.

The current work takes this technology a step further with biobots powered by skeletal muscle tissue and stimulated by on-board motor neurons, he said. The neurons have optogenetic properties derived from mouse stem cells; when exposed to light, they fire to actuate the muscle tissue.

“Neurons make connections between each other forming a neural network,” Saif explained. “Some of the neurons form junctions with the muscle. The neurons fire and stimulate the muscle.”

Once the muscle is stimulated, it contracts and moves the tails of the swimming biobot, Saif said. “This motion of the tails make the swimmer propel forward.”

Making smarter biobots

Once the researchers ensured that the neuromuscular tissue used in the biobots was compatible with the synthetic biobot skeletons, they then set about to optimize the abilities of the swimming device. In particular, they aimed for the bot to be able to respond intelligently to environment cues by integrating neural units within biohybrid systems.

“Given our understanding of neural control in animals, it may be possible to move forward with biohybrid neuromuscular design by using a hierarchical organization of neural networks,” Saif said in a press statement.

Once these smart biobots are optimized, Saif and his team believe they can be used for various applications in bioengineering, medicine, and self-healing materials and technologies.

“In the future, it is possible that such intelligent micro biorobots may swim towards a target tissue inside the body and deliver drugs on an on-demand basis,” Saif told Design News.

The team plans to continue its work by exploring the use of multiple types of neurons in the biobot as well as to test the robot’s ability to sense and fire when a threshold signal – such as a chemical gradient – is exceeded.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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