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| Earth | Human World on Jan 20, 2014

Tiny machines that swim using heart muscle cells

“Micro-organisms have a whole world that we only glimpse through the microscope. This is the first time that an engineered system has reached this underworld.” – Taher Saif

Scientists at the University of Illinois have created a minuscule swimming machine, just under eight-one-hundredth of an inch (1.95 mm), that’s powered by beating heart muscle cells. Details of their invention, which might someday have medical applications for precision-targeting medication and micro-surgery inside the body, was published in the January 17, 2014 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

Professor Taher Saif, of the University of Illinois, leads the team that created what they call a tiny bio-hybrid machine or bio-bot. He said, in a press release:

Micro-organisms have a whole world that we only glimpse through the microscope. This is the first time that an engineered system has reached this underworld.

The bio-bot has a flagella-shaped body, that is, a cell with a long tail, like a sperm cell. The machine body is made from a flexible polymer that’s coated with a substance called fibronectin, which provides an attachment surface for cardiac cells cultured on the bot’s head and tail. In a yet-to-be understood phenomenon, the heart cells communicate, align with each other, and synchronize their contraction-relaxation beat to move the machine’s tail. This motion creates waves in the fluid that propels the bot forward.

The scientists also created a faster-swimming bio-bot model with two tails. They think that a bio-bot with several tails could even be used to steer towards specific locations. This could give rise to tiny machine deployed to work on a microscopic scale. Saif commented:

The long-term vision is simple. Could we make elementary structures and seed them with stem cells that would differentiate into smart structures to deliver drugs, perform minimally invasive surgery or target cancer?

Bottom-line: University of Illinois scientists have created a microscopic swimming bio-bot that’s powered by beating cardiac muscle cells. The tiny machine, measuring just under eight-one-hundredth of an inch (1.95 mm), may someday be adapted for medical applications inside the body. The journal Nature Communications published details of this research on January 17, 2014.