What has living tissue over a metal endoskeleton? The world’s first cyborg. It doesn’t shoot laser from its eyes (yet), but it shows that we are one step closer to the iconic artificial intelligence depicted in Hollywood productions. Or, depending on who you ask, we might already be there.
The first official, successful artificial being is a baby ray fish to some’s disappointment, although we’re not so sure if Dr. Frankestein was entirely fictional.
History books now have to make room for a few more pages because we are witnessing the birth of a new generation heading undeterred towards the era of the hybrid man.
To be more specific, it is a bio-inspired swimming robot that mimics the movement of a stingray with a ray of light. The response to light is possible after the genetic engineering of rat heart cells (cardiomyocytes) to enable them to react to light cues, thus aiding the propelled robot in following a light source in any environment.
Like every step in evolution, a momentary spark of brilliance led to his historic event in the world of science. Harvard professor Kit Kevin Parker, PhD observed the almost hypnotic movement of the stingrays at the New England Aquarium in Boston. At the time he was involved in research that would ultimately resolve the building of a human heart. Examining the motion of the swimming rays, he mulled over the engineering of a muscle with the same sinuous, wavy fashion, weighing which material would carry all the necessary physical properties.
Finding the right material proved to be somewhat challenging, since the scientists at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences teamed up with their colleagues from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan and Stanford University’s Medical Center.
The massive research led to the development of a 3D-printed rubber body reinforced with a gold skeleton that would act as cartilage, due to its thinness. Genetically modified rat heart cells would ensure the response to light, in order to achieve contractions. Finally, the new cells were grown in an arranged pattern on the rubber and around the gold structure.
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What is more interesting is the muscular circuitry that animates the cybernetic organism drawn from fish morphology. Scientists were able to guide it through an obstacle course 15 times its length using strong and weak light pulses due to its great response to light.
The study authors write, “Our ray outperformed existing locomotive biohybrid systems in terms of speed, distance traveled, and durability (six days), demonstrating the potential of self-propelled, phototactically activated tissue-engineered robots.
Science of this sort is indispensable for engineering special-purpose creations like artificial worms that destroy cancer after sniffing it out affected cells. Or bionic body parts for those who have suffered accidents. Envision having some little swimmers in your system that rush in case of a medical emergency, as a stroke. Made from soft tissue and equipped with sensors, these minuscule robots could perform unrestricted movements while maintaining contact. They could perform well without consuming as much energy as any metallic counterparts or exhibiting the increased risk of rejection carried by hard-shelled microbots.
Breakthroughs such as this one minimize the distinction between disparate sciences, allowing entrepreneurs to play on the border of what life is, what alive means, and what life can be in just a few years. Should this trend continue, it won’t be long until bioengineered hybrids start making appearances in various fields and one day, their tiny appendages might offer humanity a helping hand in overcoming some of its greatest hurdles.