Stingray robot moves with the help of living cells

stingray robot rat cells
Video screen capture Disease Biophysics Group

We've seen our share of nature inspired robots where a living thing is copied in robotic form to achieve a specific type of movement or function like sea turtles, snakes, cheetahs and more. A new wave of robots inspired by biology is taking this to another level where the biology is actually part of the robot itself.

Harvard researcher Kevin Kit Parker, a professor of bioengineering, and his team have created a stingray-inspired robot that is powered by living rat cells. The robot looks like a tiny stingray but the rat cells respond to pulses of light which cause it to move, or "swim," through an obstacle course.

It has living parts, but it's also a robot. How do we classify this thing?

“It’s not an organism per se, but it’s certainly alive,” said Parker to the New York Times.

The researchers designed a 16 millimeter-long scaffold made of gold and silicone that resembles a stingray and then layered heart cells from rats on the structure. The cells were then injected with a gene that makes them contract when exposed to blue light. Those contractions are what power the robot. A faster blinking of light causes it to move faster, blinking on one side makes it turn to that side and so on.

Using blinking light the scientists led the stingray through an obstacle course 1.5 millimeters per second. Not very fast, but impressive for a class of technology that is just starting out.

If these biohybrid robots make you feel a bit squeamish, we understand. But it's important to note the beneficial roles they could play in the near future. Robots with living cells that have the ability to respond to external stimuli could help in things like environmental clean-up and monitoring, but the greatest potential lies in healthcare applications.

Parker designed this robot to mimic a stingray because of his daughter's fascination with the animals, but the integration of heart cells and electronics could pave the way for breakthroughs in cardiac care. These robots can teach scientists more about how heart cells work together, communicate and generate force and this specific technology could pave the way for next generation pacemakers.

Parker already plans to apply what he's learned on this project to the development of a light-activated pacemaker. The idea is that the gene that made the rat heart cells respond to light could be injected into human heart tissue so that it could be controlled and paced by pulses of light.

You can watch a video of the robot in action below.

Stingray robot moves with the help of living cells
It's both a robot and alive and it could serve important roles in environmental clean-ups and healthcare.

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