Creating cell-based soft robots

Written by Kayt Sukel

Researchers created a small, cell-based robot that can be controlled by rat spinal cord neurons.7263

It may sound like something out of a science fiction novel: small engineered robots built from cells and abiotic components that treat human disease and dysfunction. But Collin Kaufman, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is developing soft cell-based robotics now that offer significant advantages over traditional robotics platforms.

“Soft cell-based robots have the ability to move freely in three dimensions. They can be more easily integrated into existing tissue than something made out of a hard, rigid metal. They are less susceptible to common environmental wear-and-tear,” he explained. “And if we build these robots out of neural tissues, we have the possibility of developing new kinds of models to study neuromuscular degeneration or other neurological disease.”

Building on previous research from other teams using cardiac muscle tissue or optogenetic methods to create moving, autonomous bio-robots, Kaufman and his colleagues developed their own musculoskeletal biological machine that moves in response to glutamate signaling.

“We created this U-shaped skeleton using 3-D printing and then seeded it with muscle cells that wrap around the skeleton like a rubber band. So as that band contracts, the skeleton can crawl forward,” he said. “On top of the muscle cells is an intact spinal cord from the motor region of a rat… By putting neurons on this skeletal-muscle scaffold, we’re able to create a neuromuscular junction—essentially a peripheral nervous system in three dimensions in vitro.”

The muscle cells in this robot contract in response to glutamate, enabling motor walking behaviors. Kaufman presented his work at Neuroscience 2017, the 47th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. He plans to continue to add to the complexity of the bio-robot so that it can coordinate multiple muscle movements by innervating different muscles using the same neural source.

“If we can make this more complex, we could basically have a peripheral nervous system on a chip. We can use it to study how neurons and muscles communicate,” he said. “And that has maximum implications for drug testing and modeling different neuromuscular diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or multiple sclerosis (MS).”