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Students building living 'bio-bots' out of engineered tissues

12 January 2017

Students at UC Merced, on the Tissue Engineering Design course, are learning to build living, walking robots – bio-bots – out of engineered muscle cells.

The bio-bots are created out of living cells and 3D printed skeletons (Credit: UC Merced)

“Bio-bots have only been around since 2012, so this is really cutting-edge science with multiple technologies — natural materials assembly, 3D printing, genetic engineering, cell patterning and self-assembly, mechanical force generation – all in a micro-scale platform,” Professor Kara McCloskey said. “We are very excited to bring this amazing technology to the students. We’re working with the top engineering institutions in the country, with our students significantly benefiting from these collaborations.”

Students culture the cells in soft, gelatine-like polymers called hydrogels. They pattern the cells in the gel so they will self-assemble into muscle rings, attach the rings to 3D printed “bones” to create the 7mm long, light-responsive bots, and then exercise biological machines to build strength called contractile forces.

The fact that this construction has been possible demonstrates the ability to forward-engineer functional machines that can have applications in medicine or national defence. With an altered design, the bio-bots could be customised for any type of application. 

NSF Graduate Research Fellow Ritu Raman, at UIUC, helped design and co-lecture the course focusing on teaching students how to use 3D printers to design and build their own biological machines. Raman said the work is exciting because bio-bots can be targeted the same applications traditional robots can, but by harnessing the adaptive response behaviours of biological materials, could accomplish more complex functionalities like self-assembly or self-healing.

For more information, visit the UC Merced website.

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