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Mini bio-bot walks when its rat heart cells beat

Miniature “bio-bots” developed at the University of Illinois are made of hydrogel and heart cells, but can walk on their own.Elise A. Corbin / University of Illinois

With the aid of a 3-D printer, researchers have fashioned soft, quarter-inch-long biological robots out of gel-like material and rat heart cells. When the cells beat, the bio-bots take a step.

The robots resemble tiny springboards, each with one long, thin leg resting on a stout supporting leg. The thin leg is covered in the heart cells. When the cells beat, the long leg pulses, propelling the bio-bot forward, according to the research team from the University of Illinois.

The main body of the bio-bot consists of hydrogel, a soft gelatin-like polymer, and is built with a 3-D printer. The use of the printer allowed the researchers to rapidly explore various designs in search of one that worked. 

This gel is then coated with rat heart cells. “After a few days, the cells synchronize and beat spontaneously,” Rashid Bashir, a professor of electrical, computer, and biological engineering who led the research team, explained to NBC News in an email.

Potential uses of the bio-bots include drug testing, since how the bots move can indicate their response to certain chemicals. Integration of cells that respond to specific chemicals could allow the bio-bots to be used as sensors.

The robots bring to mind the artificial jellyfish created earlier this year that too is powered by the beating of rat heart cells. That creation was lauded as a step towards the creation of an artificial heart with living cells.

Going forward, Bashir’s team aims to enhance the control and function of their bio-bots with, for example, neurons to direct motion or cells that respond to light. They are also working on robots of various shapes and configurations to accomplish different tasks, such as climbing stairs.

“We are just beginning to scratch the surface,” Vincent Chan, a graduate student and lead author of a paper describing the bio-bots published Nov. 15 in Scientific Reports, said in a news release.

A video of the bio-bot in motion is available here

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.