First, they walked. Then, they saw the light. Now, miniature biological robots have gained a new trick: remote control.
The hybrid “eBiobots” are the first to combine soft materials, living muscle and microelectronics, said researchers led by Northwestern University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. They described their centimeter-scale biological machines in the journal Science Robotics.
“Integrating microelectronics allows the merger of the biological world and the electronics world, both with many advantages of their own, to now produce these electronic biobots and machines that could be useful for many medical, sensing and environmental applications in the future,” said study co-leader Rashid Bashir, an Illinois professor of bioengineering and dean of the Grainger College of Engineering.
Bashir’s group has pioneered the development of biobots, small biological robots powered by mouse muscle tissue grown on a soft 3D-printed polymer skeleton. They demonstrated walking biobots in 2012 and light-activated biobots in 2016. The light activation gave the researchers some control, but practical applications were limited by the question of how to deliver the light pulses to the biobots outside of a lab setting.
The answer to that question came from Northwestern professor John A. Rogers, a pioneer in flexible bioelectronics, whose team helped integrate tiny wireless microelectronics and battery-free micro-LEDs. This allowed the researchers to remotely control the eBiobots.
“This unusual combination of technology and biology opens up vast opportunities in creating self-healing, learning, evolving, communicating and self-organizing engineered systems,” Rogers said. “We feel that it’s a very fertile ground for future research with specific potential applications in biomedicine and environmental monitoring.”
Rogers is a professor of materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering and neurological surgery at Northwestern, where he directs the Querrey Simpson Institute for Bioelectronics.
To give the biobots the freedom of movement required for practical applications, the researchers set out to eliminate bulky batteries and tethering wires. The eBiobots use a receiver coil to harvest power and provide a regulated output voltage to power the micro-LEDs, said co-first author Zhengwei Li, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Houston.