Rashid Bashir, the head of the bioengineering department at the University of Illinois, and Taher Saif, a professor of mechanical science and engineering at Illinois, will speak in Boston on the design and development of walking and swimming bio-bots at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“These machines are now viewed as partially living, with the ability to form, the ability to age and the ability to heal if there’s an injury,” Saif said. “Now that we’ve got them working, we are beginning to look back and try to understand how the cells organize themselves and what language they use to communicate. This is the developmental biology of living machines.”
“As engineers, we usually build with materials like wood, steel or silicon. Our focus here is to forward-engineer biological or cell-based systems,” Bashir said. “The design is inspired by the muscle-tendon-bone complex found in nature. There’s a skeleton or backbone, but made out of soft polymers similar to the ones used in contact lenses, so it can bend instead of needing joints like the body does.”
Credit: University of Illinois
In the talk “Engineered Living Micro Swimmers,” Saif will describe bio-bots that swim and the physical and biological interactions that cause the cells to come into alignment. They form a single muscle unit that contracts to beat a tail, propelling the bio-bot through liquid.
“They align themselves in a direction where the tail of the swimmer can be bent most. Which is exactly what we wanted, although we did not pattern or direct them to do it,” Saif said. “Why do they behave this way? If each cell beat at its own time, we wouldn’t have the swimmer. What made them synchronize into a single entity?”
Bashir and Saif will share insights learned from these questions and more.
“The objective is not to make a walker and a swimmer, but to lay the scientific foundation so we have principles for building biological machines in the future,” Saif said.
Liz Ahlberg Touchstone