Mar 15, 2016 | By Benedict

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and MIT have created a new class of biological robots (bio-bots), made from 3D printed scaffolds and living muscle cells, and which move in response to light stimulation. The bio-bots could be used in health, sensing, and environmental applications.

Patients on their deathbed are usually discouraged from “going into the light”, but that’s exactly what these 3D printed bio-bots have been genetically programmed to do. As explained in a paper recently published in scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the tiny bio-bots have been engineered to respond to light, giving researchers total control over their motion. When a light source is flashed at a higher frequency, for example, the bio-bots move faster. The 3D printed robots could eventually be used for non-invasive drug delivery and other applications.

So how does one create a tiny, biological, “walking” robot? For the researchers, led by Rashid Bashir, head of bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the best answer to that question involved rings of muscle tissue combined with tiny 3D printed scaffolds. Created with the stereolithography 3D printing technique, these goalpost-shaped scaffolds were each wrapped in a ring of light-responsive muscle tissue taken from the cell line of a mouse, resulting in a muscle-skeleton relationship similar to that found in many natural organisms. “Almost everything that we do in engineering is trying to replicate the beauty, intricacy, and complexity of what we find in nature,” explained Bashir.

According to the scientists involved in the groundbreaking research, controlling bio-robots with light represents a safer and moe effective method than controlling them via other means such as electricity, which can cause adverse side effects. ”Light is a noninvasive way to control these machines," Bashir said. "It gives us flexibility in the design and the motion. The bottom line of what we are trying to accomplish is the forward design of biological systems, and we think the light control is an important step toward that.”

Important design choices were made when constructing the 7mm to 2cm muscle rings attached to each 3D printed scaffold. ”The skeletal muscle rings we engineer are shaped like rings or rubber bands because we want them to be modular," said graduate student Ritu Raman, first author of the paper. "This means we can treat them as building blocks that can be combined with any 3D printed skeleton to make bio-bots for a variety of different applications.”

In addition to the modular design, the thin muscle rings have the advantages of allowing light and nutrients to diffuse into the tissue from all sides. This contrasts with earlier bio-bot designs, which used a thick strip of muscle tissue grown around the skeleton.

The researchers also wanted to make the strongest robot possible, so they tried skeletons of a variety of sizes and shapes to find which configurations generated the most net motion, which turns out to be something similar to how an inchworm moves. They also exercised the muscle rings daily, triggering the muscle with a flashing light, to make them stronger so that the bots moved farther with each contraction.

"This is a much more flexible design," Bashir added. "With the rings, we can connect any two joints or hinges on the 3D printed skeleton. We can have multiple legs and multiple rings. With the light, we can control which direction things move. People can now use this to build higher-order systems.”

The research was part of the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems project, funded by the National Science Foundation.

The National Science Foundation has posted a video of the biobots in action, check it out now:



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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