Jul 19, 2016 | By Alec

Can we expect swarms of 3D printed biohybrid creatures in the near future? It certainly seems that way, as numerous research initiatives are working hard to build semi-autonomous swarm creatures for medical, reconnaissance and disaster relief applications. Just last week, we saw 3D printed biohybrid mini-stingrays that respond to light cues, and now a team of Ohio specialists have unveiled their own creature: a biohybrid crawler made from sea slug muscle cells and a 3D printed polymer body – perfect for exploring the ocean floor looking for wreckage or toxic leaks.

These remarkable two-inch long creatures have been made by researchers from Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University, as part of a study led by PhD student Victoria Webster. Also involved were engineering professor and director of Case Western Reserve’s Biologically Inspired Robotics Laboratory Roger Quinn, biology professor Hillel Chiel, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the CWRU Tissue Fabrication and Mechanobiology Lab Ozan Akkus, and Umut Gurkan, head of the CWRU Biomanufacturing and Microfabrication Laboratory. Undergraduate researchers Emma L. Hawley and Jill M. Patel, and master’s graduate Katherine J. Chapin, also contributed to this remarkable study.

As Webster explains, they were especially keen to build biohybrids that can crawl on the bottom of seas and rivers in a way existing robotics can’t, and saw significant locomotive potential in sea slugs – which typically slither over the ground. Specifically, the researchers found what they were looking for in the sea slug’s mouth – rather than the slug’s own movement muscles. By taking a specific muscle from the mouth of the California sea slug Aplysia californica, they were able to build living machines that can autonomously crawl around, powered by an external electrical field. “We’re building a living machine—a biohybrid robot that’s not completely organic—yet,” said Webster.

But why a slug? And why a muscle that isn’t intended for movement? As professor Quinn explained, they were very keen to build a robot that can “manage different tasks than an animal or a purely manmade robot could,” he said. Specifically, they are envisioning swarms of biohybrid robots that can withstand harsh situations – capable of locating the source of toxic leaks in rivers that destroy wildlife, or find black boxes on the ocean floors. This is something conventional robots simply cannot do yet. “One of the problems with traditional robotics, especially on the small scale, is that actuators—the units that provide movement—tend to be rigid,” Webster said.

With the specific task of underwater crawling in mind, this quickly narrowed down the field of potential biological material sources. But sea slugs, it turns out, have very durable cells that can withstand significant changes in temperature, salinity and tides. They can even easily shift from seas to ponds and rivers. In short, they are one of the most durable creatures around and a perfect source of durable biological material.

Initially, the researchers did not specifically focus on the creature’s mouth muscles – but just on muscle cells in general. These are compliant and are powered by nutrients in the medium around them. What’s more, they’re much softer than actuators – giving them an excellent power-to-weight ratio. But they soon found out that these muscle cells work much better in its original biological structure. “When we integrate the muscle with its natural biological structure, it’s hundreds to 1,000 times better,” professor Akkus explained. And in that respect, the buccal mass muscles in the mouth had an optimal structure and form.

In these first biohybrids, the buccal muscles – which naturally have two ‘arms’ – are connected to a 3D printed polymer body and arms. The electrically-powered muscles contract and release, creating a swaying movement that propels the robot forward. During early tests, the robot moved at about 0.4 centimeters per minute. What’s more, that movement can be controlled through the creature’s own ganglia – the cluster of nerve cells that control the nervous system. “With the ganglia, the muscle is capable of much more complex movement, compared to using a manmade control, and it’s capable of learning,” Webster explained.

The potential is obvious, and these creatures certainly show off the possibilities created by bioengineering. Over time, the researchers hope to turn this concept into completely organic robots that can move in response to a series of easy signals. In such a situation, the creatures would no longer be 3D printed, but are instead built from the slug’s skin and collagen, packed together to form a lightweight scaffold. Most importantly, they would be very cheap to make, and can be released in situations with zero chance of recovery. Being biodegradable, the creatures can easily be eaten by wildlife or decompose naturally upon completing their task.

But there is obviously still a lot of work to be done before that point is reached, though these crawlers would certainly be welcome when dealing with numerous disasters. Perhaps the BP oil spill would’ve never gotten out of hand if such biohybrid robots were around. While no follow up plans have been shared yet, Webster will be presenting her work at the Living Machines conference in Edinburgh, Scotland later this week, when more will doubtlessly be revealed.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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