Researchers design remotely-controlled "biobots" powered by mouse cells

Tiny robots that move using lab-grown mouse muscles signify huge changes in the robotics industry.

Called eBiobot, the pea-sized machine is a hybrid of technology and biology developed by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University, and other institutions.

Thanks to integrated LED controllers, it does not need a battery or a power source to control it remotely and moves by harvesting light instead. This is made possible due to light-sensitive mouse muscle tissue artificially grown around the bot's soft 3D-printed skeleton.

Researchers were able to control the robot by sending a wireless signal that prompted LEDs to pulse and stimulate the muscle, which in turn set its polymer legs in motion. Specific portions can be targeted to make it move in the desired direction.

First-of-a-kind biological robots, or biobots, were described in a paper published by the Science Robotics journal. It said the research could pave the way toward a new class of "biohybrid machines" with "various applications across engineering, biology, and medicine."

Illinois professor Bashir Rashid, the study's co-leader, told the Illinois News Bureau that "integrating microelectronics allows the merger of the biological world and the electronics world," offering the advantages of both.

Biobot maneuvering around obstacles. Image by Yongdeok Kim/Illinois News Bureau

According to researchers, future applications could lead to self-healing biobots that respond to environmental toxins or biomarkers for disease.

"In developing a first-ever hybrid bioelectronic robot, we are opening the door for a new paradigm of applications for health care innovation," Zhengwei Li, the first co-author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Houston, told the Illinois News Bureau.

Li said that these could include in-situ biopsies and analysis, minimally invasive surgeries, and cancer detection within the human body.

The video demonstration of the eBiobot showed it traversing a maze and maneuvering around obstacles. Further research could see it pushing or transporting things, researchers said.

Earlier research combining robotics and biology involved "cyborg" cockroaches and a "necrobotic" spider gripper.

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