Space & Innovation

Heart Cells Are Bringing Robots To Life

Scientists just created a tiny robot made of metal and rubber but powered by rat heart muscle cells! How do biological hybrid machines work?

Biomimicry is a busy area of research in robotics these days. The term refers to engineering strategies that mimic animals and plants. The idea is to leverage the power of millions of years of evolution to find the most efficient approach to a particular design problem.

As Crystal Dilworth reports in today's DNews dispatch, these researchers aren't monkeying around. They're already building hybrid organic robots that use both mechanical components and living cells.

To wit: A team of researchers at Harvard recently unveiled a tiny artificial stingray built with metal, rubber and about 200,000 rat heart muscle cells. The biomechanical robot isn't alive in any traditional sense, but it swims like a real fish and can be steered with pulses of laser light.

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It works like this: The heart cells on the exterior of the robot are bioengineered with a specific protein that responds to light. Unlike other kinds of tissue, heart cells contract together when exposed to the right stimuli. With the light-sensitive protein, scientists are able to trigger muscle contractions by shooting pulses of light at the heart cells.

The heart cells, meanwhile, are attached to the robot's skeleton, made of gold, and its body, made of rubber. When the heart muscles contract, they move the skeleton in such a way as to mimic the propulsion of a stingray. In other words, the robot swims – without any batteries or traditional power source.

It gets better: After the first few iterations of the robot, researchers figured out a way to modify heart cells so that they respond to different wavelengths of light. By putting different heart muscles on the left and right wings, scientists can effectively steer the artificial stingrays by pulsing different kinds of light.

Crystal has more details in her report, including some interesting specifics on how you feed a biomechanical stingray. Or click on over to our related coverage on old-school organic variety: Stingrays Don't Just Suck, They Chew.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

Huffington Post: Animal Propulsion Study Reveals How Jellyfish & Other Species Bend The Rules Of Motion

ScienceMag: Robotic stingray powered by light-activated muscle cells

NCBI: A tissue-engineered jellyfish with biomimetic propulsion.