Freaky but fascinating: Students use 3D Printing to create robots from living tissue

Kara E McCloskey, PhD.
Kara E McCloskey, PhD.

Students at the University of California Merced, under the direction of Professor Kara McCloskey, PhD, are building robots – but not just any robots. Her students are creating “bio-bots” which are tiny robots made from living tissue! They move and they walk, but they don’t have any electronic components. What they do have are muscles (yes, muscles!). “Bio-bots have only been around since 2012, so this is really cutting-edge science with multiple technologies — natural materials assembly, 3-D printing, genetic engineering, cell patterning and self-assembly, mechanical force generation – all in a micro-scale platform,” said McCloskey. The work is being done as part of a $25 million Science and Technology Center (STC) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) – specifically, from the STC for Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS), headquartered at MIT. The center was founded for the purpose of creating living, multi-cellular machines that can be used to solve problems in healthcare, security and the environment.

Students culture cells within a hydrogel, arranging them so that they grow into rings of muscle.
Students culture cells within a hydrogel, so that they grow into rings of muscle.

In McCloskey’s lab, students culture cells within a hydrogel, arranging them so that they grow into rings of muscle. The muscle is then attached to a 3D-Printed ‘backbone.’ The muscles are responsive to blue light, which the students then shine on their creations to get them to contract, in effect exercising them to build contractile strength. The contraction of the muscles is what drives the movement of the bio-bots.

You can watch the process in a video here.

By tweaking the design, engineers can customize the bio-bots for specific applications. McCloskey’s students are working on creating heart tissue, derived from stem cells, that could be used to patch human hearts that have been damaged by heart attacks. The patch of tissue would contract and expand in rhythm with the heartbeat. They’re not quite there yet because they haven’t yet come up with an effective way to integrate the contracting muscle with vasculature to supply blood.

Students at the University of California Merced are building "bio-bots."
Students at the University of California Merced are building “bio-bots.”

In essence, the bio-bots combine living creatures with robot technology. They can be controlled like robots and targeted to the same types of applications – but their biological adaptive response behaviours could be harnessed for more complex functions like self-healing or self-assembly.

While there’s a tremendous amount of potential for bio-bots in the future, the course is focused not on the applications, but on building a foundation for the technology by teaching students the fundamentals of designing and building with biological materials.

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.