Image copyright Shutterstock Image caption Professor John Glass of the UK’s University of Southampton says similar efforts could be in the future
Scientists have achieved the world’s first living experiments on robots.
A team led by the University of Southampton revealed they had created a miniature robot that replicated some kinds of human biology.
The micro-robots managed to learn how to make use of the protein polydimethylsiloxane and grown sugary polymer constructs that brought them life.
“The team are pioneers in the field,” explained Project leader Professor John Glass.
“They’ve been developing mini-robot body parts that carry out complex chemical processes for years. These developments are not only an amazing technology for research, but could be expanded to create structures that do things that cannot be done in the laboratory.”
The first and far more challenging step in developing the robots was to reproduce the complex polydimethylsiloxane that gives them life.
This required producing proteins from scratch that would function in the tiny cockroaches-like form of the animals.
Image copyright Sean Downing Image caption The team worked with tiny insects that share human proteins
Every creature has an internal organising principle called a genome. These sequence – the complex 23 genes that allow the animals to develop – are shared by many other species and help the thing itself to develop in response to external environmental cues.
The scientists tried to reproduce this organising principle in the robots in a way that would teach them to play.
They tested their robot body parts on different cells and turned them into the right shape and size by exposing them to an acidic solution which makes proteins spontaneously adhere to the outer membrane of the cell.
Image copyright Professor Glass Image caption By converting the cell cultures into three-dimensional objects, the team were able to teach the robots their function
So, when the team activated the motor proteins that control the robot’s movements, the robot became aware of where it was and its environment.
The team then tested the robots by stuffing them into different tissue samples that were put inside tiny capsules made of hydrogel.
Once inside, the lab cultures formed tissue where the robot was able to test and study its functions in more detail, allowing the team to gain more detailed understanding of how the body cells respond to its inputs.
By learning and understanding how the complex biochemical reactions go on inside, the robots can begin to develop their own chemical and physical properties – this was one of the key achievements of the paper.
“This is the first time a robot made of organometallic cells has been put in the context of an organism – that is, it is living at the same scale as a real cellular cell,” said the team.
“The implantable robots were used to investigate how cells react to different chemical signals, and were successful at mimicking the behaviour of the organisms they were designed to mimic.”