Published February 25, 2013
Robots made of programmable living tissues … sound like fiction straight out of Battlestar Galactica?
New research could pave the way to machines built from biological materials -- and it could rebuild a broken human heart.
The team developing the technology, led by Ali Khademhosseini, an associate professor at Harvard-MIT's Division of Health Sciences and Technology, published their findings in the journal ACS Nano.
Their invention: bionic tissue, a hybrid material composed of cardiac cells, gel and carbon nanotubes.
Muscles made out of living tissue hold the potential to give robots far superior strength and physical properties. Not only would the robot’s bionic tissue be able to move, it would also be programmable.
These new tissues can already be programmed to swim, move back and forth and more. Last year, the researchers demonstrated jellyfish-style robots made of the material that could swim by themselves.
Even more impressive, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign bioengineer Rashid Bashir created walking biological robots built from heart tissues and polymers.
Natural human tissue and cells can sense and respond to their environment. These sorts of natural behaviors are very hard for engineers to achieve with the synthetic materials used in conventional robotics.
For the most part, attempts to replicate natural tissue with synthetic material tend to fall short, but this research seems promising and takes synthetic biology beyond single cells. After all, there’s not much of a market for robots that can’t survive outside of a lab.
When they tested their bionic tissue with exposure to various chemicals, it showed resistance to damage. Even when under stress, the cells maintained communication, because carbon nanotubes facilitate electrical links between cells.
The cure for a broken heart?
Their paper suggests one of the first applications for the tech could be creating biological machines to repair buildings or assess and restore toxic environments.
But remarkably, the tech also has potential to repair a broken heart -- and not just metaphorically. It could be used to patch tissue damaged by heart attacks.
Human heart tissues are mechanically tough and robust, maintain a strong rhythmic beat and are electrically conductive.
Previous research in this area has struggled to duplicate these essential qualities in the lab.
The team believes their hybrid material is more similar to healthy heart tissue than other techniques, because they take living cardiac cells and seed them into tissue engineering gel that has conductive carbon nanotubes embedded into it.
The bionic tissue is not biodegradable making it very long lasting – great for robots, maybe not so great for humans. Safety for humans will need to be evaluated and include reviewing the carbon nanotubes for any toxicity risks.
The team developing the technology, led by MIT-Harvard professor Ali Khademhosseini, published their findings in the journal ACS Nano.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.