Robots Powered by Bacteria Could Be the Next Big Thing in Medicine

Tuesday, 23 February 2016 - 1:36PM
Robotics
Medical Tech
Weird Science
Tuesday, 23 February 2016 - 1:36PM
Robots Powered by Bacteria Could Be the Next Big Thing in Medicine
Could bacteria be the (somewhat ironic) answer to cutting-edge targeted medicines? University of Pennsylvania researchers Elizabeth Beattie and Denise Wong are attempting to use bacteria to power microscopic robots in a novel approach that could yield the most accurate and intelligent medicinal robots yet.



As they explain in the above video, the researchers aim to use bacteria as "micromotors" for synthetic structures and propel them through the body. Although the idea of intentionally building cyborg bacteria sounds like "the prologue of a dark science fiction film," as Science Friday puts it, bacteria aren't inherently dangerous in themselves, and could potentially be used to heal diseases rather than cause them.

Opening quote
"If you view this through a different type of lens than what you're used to and kind of stretch your idea of what bacteria are, they're not necessarily all harmful," Beattie says in the video.
Closing quote

As Beattie and Wong explain, bacteria have several qualities that make them ideal for powering and navigating "biorobots." They are easy and cheap to grow, and they respond to environmental stimuli, an ability which is very difficult to replicate in robots. While they don't have too much power on their own, their swarming ability (yikes) would allow them to move synthetic structures within the body. When bacteria are in a swarm, they become hyper-flagellated, meaning they develop multiple tails that give them more propulsive power, and work as a collective to perform impressive physical feats compared to their size.

Opening quote
"They're very easy to grow, they're easy to maintain and they have very efficient motors - much more efficient than anything that we've been able to create at such a small scale thus far," Wong says.
Closing quote


Beattie and Wong demonstrate in the video that swarms of bacteria can be manipulated to control synthetic structures with relatively simple shapes. A robot shaped like a gear, for example, can be turned by bacteria in either direction, depending on the shape of the gear's teeth. And the bacteria's ability to sense their environment allows the researchers to control the movement of the swarm by shining a blue light on a specific part of the structure, which affords them direct control over the robot's movements.

Opening quote
"If all of that sounds like the ominous start of a microcyborg movie, the researchers assure you that they have no intentions of world domination," they state in the video.
Closing quote

Instead of a cyborg bacteria apocalypse, the researchers intend to use this technology for extremely targeted medicine. Since bacteria are so sensitive to their environment, they could potentially bring synthetic structures carrying medications to very specific parts of the body. The shapes are very specific and simple for now, but the research is ongoing, and bacteria-powered microscopic biorobots could potentially change the face of medicine as we know it.
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