Bio-engineers have used muscle tissue from rats, mice, as well as some birds to construct part-living, part-mechanical "organic machines," but now they've turned to the lowly sea slug as a model for an ocean-exploring robot.
In a new research paper, the scientists extracted a muscle from the animal's feeding apparatus (an organ that grabs food), and combined with robot arms to make a small swimming device.
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"When we stimulate the muscle, the robot moves forward," said Vickie Webster, a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. "We are taking tissue as well as collagen from the skin of the sea slug to make living machines. In this paper we focused on the material aspects of the sea slug and what we can make with it."
Webster and colleagues will present their findings next month at the "Living Machines" conference in Edinburgh. She chose the California sea slug (Aplysia californica) because it can withstand cold ocean temperatures as well as more moderate water found in coastal tide pools.
"They experience large changes in temperature and that makes their cells very robust," Webster said.
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The team removed collagen cells from the animal's skin and used it to fabricate gels and scaffolds for the device. Muscle from the mouth was used as an organic actuator to move the 3D-printed polymer arms back and forth.
"Collagen is the mortar of a body, while cells are the bricks," Webster said. "We took material from the skin and fabricated it to make a scaffold. These are structures that we can use to grow cells inside."
The team built a robot body that has two arms and a tail. Twelve muscles connected between body and arms allow the biohybrid robot to scoot backwards and push the body forward.
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