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Musclebots
Jamais Cascio, 17 Jan 05

biobot.jpgAs harbingers of the future go, this one has it all: self-assembly, biomimicry, cybernetic integration of biology and machine, and revolutionary potential for both medical applications and swarm robotics. It's very much the kind of scientific report that makes one feel like this is, in fact, the 21st century. As with many such breakthroughs, this one will take some time to play out, but even this early stage is pretty amazing.

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, department of bioengineering have developed a method of growing frog heart muscle cells linked to an artificial skeletal framework, and powered by glucose in solution. Unlike previous approaches using developed muscles to power artificial systems, the muscles were grown, self-assembling along a polymer framework. Once fully attached to the frame, the muscles could contract and expand, moving the entire biobot along.

In this system, individual cells grow and self-assemble into muscle bundles that are integrated with micromechanical structures and can be controllably released to enable free movement. Having realized such an assembly [...] we demonstrate two potential applications: a force transducer able to characterize in situ the mechanical properties of muscle and a self-assembled hybrid (biotic/abiotic) microdevice that moves as a consequence of collective cooperative contraction of muscle bundles.

Near Near Future points to a BBC News piece for details; a New Scientist article also fills in the specifics.

Muscle-powered microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) represent an attractive alternative to micromotors. They could operate inside the human body by feeding on glucose in the blood. "It could be used for micro-surgery," says Jeff Xi, one of the team. "Perhaps this could be used to push away plaque in an artery."

But integrating biological and man-made materials could have a variety of potential applications. The technique could, for example, enable paralysed patients to breathe without the aid of a ventilator by stimulating the phrenic nerve - which controls the movement of the diaphragm - with a small electrical pulse.

[...] And more fantastic ideas have been proposed by NASA, which has provided funding for the project. The US space agency hopes that swarms of muscle-powered microbots could one day repair damage to remote spacecraft automatically.

The research was reported in Nature Materials; as usual, an abstract and supplementary materials are freely available (site sign-up required), but the full article requires a subscription to the journal. In this case, the supplementary links are well-worth checking out: two Quicktime movies of the musclebot in action!

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Comments

Does nobody else think this is slightly creepy!?


Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 17 Jan 05

I considered including a line about the downside of this research being that it's kind of creepy, but I tossed it. I realized that much of what triggered the "eewww, creeeeepy" response was the muscle working absent a body to animate it; it's similar to the response many people have seeing an amputated frog's leg (or similar) kicking when given a jolt of electricity. It's a stark and startling reminder that biology is machinery, and the "spark of life" seemingly little more than glucose and electricity. Unsettling, true, but there you have it.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 17 Jan 05

This is simply fantastic! Not only that but the Nature Materials site is a gem. Thanks so much for the link!


Posted by: Carl Schellenberg on 17 Jan 05

There's also a science fictiony, living robots taking over the world aspect to it, I think, that makes it so unsettling. One of the ideas I see mooted occasionally is that of growing meat using genetic vats. As a vegetarian (on the grounds of cruelty in the production process) this is something that I'd be interested in - does anyone know if it's anywhere near happening?


Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 18 Jan 05

This is indeed one of the moments that makes us realise we're living in the 21st century! Bits of rat brains controlling flight simulators, direct neural interfaces to human brains, and now robots hopping around using frog heart muscles.

Fantastic!

I guess maybe I read too many Cyberpunk books (and played the games - CP2020!) in my formative years.


Posted by: Frank Shearar on 18 Jan 05



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