Microelectronics gives researchers remote control for biological robots


Photo of the eBiobot prototype, lit with a blue microLED. Remote controlled miniature biological robots have many potential applications in medicine, sensing and environmental monitoring. Image courtesy of Yongdeok Kim

By Liz Ahlberg Touchstone

First, they walk. Then, they saw the light. Now, mini biological robots have acquired a new trick: remote control.

Hybrid “eBiobots” are the first to combine soft materials, living muscle and microelectronics, say researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University, and collaborating institutions. They describe their centimeter-scale biological machine in the journal Science Robotics.

“Integrating microelectronics enables the merging of the biological and electronic worlds, both with their respective advantages, to now produce electronic biobots and machines that could be useful for many medical, sensing and environmental applications in the future,” said the study. co-leader Rashid Bashiran Illinois professor from biotechnology and dean of Grainger College of Engineering.

Rashid Bashir. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Bashir’s group has pioneered the development of the biobot, a small biological robot powered by mouse muscle tissue grown on a soft 3D printed polymer skeleton. They demonstrated a walking biobot in 2012 and a light-activated biobot in 2016. Light activation gives researchers some control, but practical applications are limited by the question of how to deliver pulses of light to biobots outside of a lab setting.

The answer to that question comes from a Northwestern University professor John A. Rogers, a pioneer in flexible bioelectronics, whose team helped integrate small wireless microelectronics and battery-free micro-LEDs. This allows researchers to control eBiobots remotely.

“This unusual combination of technology and biology opens up enormous opportunities in creating engineered systems that are self-healing, learning, evolving, communicating and self-regulating. We feel that this is a very fertile ground for future research with specific potential applications in biomedicine and environmental monitoring,” said Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering, and neurosurgery at Northwestern University and director of the Querrey Simpson Institute for Bioelectronics. . .

Remote control steering allows eBiobots to maneuver around obstacles, as shown in this composite image of a bipedal robot traversing a maze. Image courtesy of Yongdeok Kim

To give the biobot the freedom of movement necessary for practical applications, the researchers started eliminating the bulky battery and tether cables. eBiobots use a receiving coil to harvest power and provide a regulated output voltage to power the micro-LEDs, said first co-author Zhengwei Li, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Houston.

The researchers were able to send a wireless signal to the eBiobots which prompts the LEDs to pulse. The LEDs stimulate light-sensitive engineered muscles to contract, moving the polymer legs so the machine “goes”. The micro-LEDs are so highly targeted that they activate specific muscle parts, making the eBiobot spin in the desired direction. View videos on YouTube.

The researchers used computational modeling to optimize the eBiobot design and component integration for robustness, speed and maneuverability. Illinois professor of mechanical science and engineering Matthias Gazzola led the simulation and design of eBiobots. Iterative design and additive 3D printing of the scaffolds enable fast experiment cycles and improved performance, said Gazzola and first co-author Xiaotian Zhang, a postdoctoral researcher in Gazzola’s lab.

eBiobots are the first wireless bio-hybrid machines, combining biological tissue, microelectronics and 3D printed soft polymers. Image courtesy of Yongdeok Kim

The design allows future integration of additional microelectronics, such as chemical and biological sensors, or 3D printed scaffolding parts for functions such as propelling or transporting items biobots encounter, said first co-author Youngdeok Kim, who completed the work as a graduate student in Illinois.

The integration of electronic sensors or biological neurons will enable eBiobots to sense and respond to toxins in the environment, biomarkers for disease, and more possibilities, the researchers said.

“In developing the first hybrid bioelectronic robot, we opened the door for a new paradigm of applying healthcare innovations, such as in-situ biopsy and analysis, minimally invasive surgery, or even detection of cancer within the human body,” Li said.

The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health support this work.

The Illinois News Bureau seeks faculty research and expertise with news potential beyond the discipline, campus, and local community.

The Illinois News Bureau seeks faculty research and expertise with news potential beyond the discipline, campus, and local community.


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