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Self-propelled swimming bio-bots move like sperm in alien world of aquatic micro-organisms

According to a news release from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, synthetic self-propelled swimming bio-bots just entered the strange world of aquatic micro-organisms.

Engineers have created a class of small bio-hybrid machines that move like sperm, the first synthetic structures that can negotiate the viscous fluids of biological environments unsupervised.

“Micro-organisms have a whole world that we only glimpse through the microscope,” noted Taher Saif, the University of Illinois Gutgsell Professor of mechanical science and engineering, in a statement. “This is the first time that an engineered system has reached this underworld.”

The bio-bots are modeled after single-celled structures with long tails known as flagella. The engineers started by building the body of the bio-bot from a flexible polymer. Then they culture heart cells near the intersection of the head and the tail. The cells self-adjust and synchronize to beat together, dispatching a wave down the tail that pushes the bio-bot forward.

How exactly the cells communicate with each other on the flexible polymer tail is yet to be completely understood, according to Saif.

“It’s the minimal amount of engineering – just a head and a wire,” Saif said. “Then the cells come in, interact with the structure, and make it functional.”

The engineers also constructed two-tailed bots, which they discovered can swim even quicker. The engineers anticipate future bots that could sense chemicals or light and move toward a target for practical applications

“The long-term vision is simple,” said Saif. “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?”

The findings are described in greater detail in the journal Nature Communications.

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