This week we learned about a tiny robotic stingray bioengineered from rat heart muscle that can navigate an obstacle course, 3D-printed “micro-rockets” made from biodegradable silk that could one day target cancer in the body like a missile, and a programmable genetic vaccine against Ebola, malaria and the flu that can be made in just seven days and was 100 percent effective in tests in mice. Read on if you dare!
Top image: A tissue-engineered soft-robotic ray, on the left, and a little skate, Leucoraja erinacea, on the right. Image credit: Karaghen Hudson
Harvard University bioengineer Kit Parker designed a tiny, translucent, swimming stingray robot using 200,000 genetically engineered rat heart muscle cells. “Roughly speaking, we made this thing with a pinch of rat cardiac cells, a pinch of breast implant and a pinch of gold,” he told Popular Mechanics. “That pretty much sums it up, except for the genetic engineering.” The robot can follow flashes of light and navigate an obstacle course (see video above). “Really what we’re doing is using tools from robotics to understand the heart,” Parker told Popular Science. He published the results in the journal Science.
Parker’s colleagues at the University of Sheffield in England have used 3D inkjet printing to make silk “micro-rockets” that could one day swim through blood vessels and deliver drugs to a precise address in the body or target cancer cells. “The rockets are just 300 microns in length and 100 microns in diameter, the thickness of a single human hair, and create their own thrust, allowing them to ‘swim’ through any bio-fluid containing the fuel,” the team said in a press release. The research, they wrote, has been “the biggest step yet in producing microscopic silk swimming devices that are biodegradable and harmless to a biological system.” The research was published in the journal Small.
Researchers at the Iowa State University have built a microbial fuel cell that generates electricity without any need for an external power source — just food. “All power created in this device is usable because no electricity is needed to run the fluids through the device,” lead researcher Nastaran Hashemi said in a press release. The fuel cell is made from layers of paper and biofilm kept well-fed with a bright-red salt called potassium ferricyanide. “Using their new set-up, the team showed that a microbial fuel cell could continue to generate an electrical current for five days, without any external power or human interference,” the press release said. The research was published in the journal Technology.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have designed a programmable genetic vaccine that can be made in just a week. The team said in a news release that vaccines against Ebola, the H1N1 flu and the parasite that causes malaria were “100 percent effective in tests in mice.” The vaccine is made from a string of genetic material called programmable RNA. The material “can be designed to code for any viral, bacterial, or parasitic protein,” the researchers wrote. “These molecules are then packaged into a molecule that delivers the RNA into cells, where it is translated into proteins that provoke an immune response from the host.” Daniel Anderson, an associate professor in MIT’s department of chemical engineering, said the method “allows us to make vaccines against new diseases in only seven days, allowing the potential to deal with sudden outbreaks or make rapid modifications and improvements.”
The Japanese electronics giant Sony is building a robot “capable of forming an emotional bond with customers, and able to grow to inspire love and affection,” the company announced during its annual corporate strategy meeting. It disclosed that in “April 2016 Sony established a new organization in this area that is working towards a business launch. Sony will seek to propose new business models that integrate hardware and services to provide emotionally compelling experiences.” The movie “Blade Runner,” which did feature emotionally endowed “replicants,” was set in 2019. We still have three years to catch up.