Biomimetics—the use of designs and systems found in nature to inspire engineering solutions—has been a fertile field of innovation. A recent example comes from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where researchers are developing so-called bio-bots.
Less than 1 cm in size, the bio-bots are constructed from flexible 3D-printed hydrogels and living cells. The muscle cells are jolted with electrical pulses to create contractions, and, thus, movement. It's one small step toward biological machines that can be stimulated, trained, or programmed to do work, say researchers. Possible applications include drug-delivery systems, surgical robotics, smart implants, and mobile environmental analyzers, but the possibilities are, in fact, endless. The research group led by Rashid Bashir, Abel Bliss Professor and head of bioengineering at the U. of I, published its work in the online early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
"Skeletal muscles cells are very attractive because you can pace them using external signals," says Bashir. "For example, you would use skeletal muscle when designing a device that you wanted to start functioning when it senses a chemical or when it received a certain signal. To us, it's part of a design toolbox. We want to have different options that could be used by engineers to design these things."