Scientists allow living cells to communicate with electronic components. This advance in robotics brings researchers one step closer to the bio-hybrid robot – a living machine.
Newcastle (UK). Robot technology has made incredible advances in recent years. Some robots take on complicated and dangerous tasks, others imitate animals and still others are designed to create an image of humans. Nevertheless, today’s robots are just machines, assembled from sheet metal, screws and countless electronic components.
British researchers have now succeeded in creating a bridge between living cells and electronic components. In the experiments, Orr Yarkoni from Newcastle University and his colleagues succeeded in making organic cells communicate with electrical components. This is the first step towards a bio-hybrid robot, a robot with a living inner workings.
The British researchers modified the cells from the ovaries of Chinese hamsters so that they react to visible light and produce nitric oxide as a result. If the cells come into contact with light, they produce nitrogen oxides, which in turn supply electricity to a platinum electrode. The platinum electrode then generates an electrical signal. The system thus creates a chain reaction from an optical input via a chemical mediator to an electronic output. The strength of the electrical output depends on the intensity of the light.
With this system, scientists have overcome many of the obstacles that previously posed a problem with bio-hybrid technology. On the one hand, cellular processes are often much too slow to interact with electronic signals and on the other hand, the electrical voltages are harmful, if not fatal, for organic cells within such a system.
The researchers report in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics that the key to success lay in the discovery of nitrogen oxides as a chemical mediator. The gas is one of the few substances that meets all the necessary requirements for such a complex system. The gas has the ability to penetrate cells, has an ideal half-life and is one of the signaling molecules that can also maintain the gaseous state of aggregation within a cell.
The new system offers two major advantages over previous photodetectors: the cells can regenerate themselves if they are damaged, and they are also able to combine incoming signals with one another. The researchers want to use the new technology in the next generation of robots.
It will probably be a few years before the bio-hybrid technology can be used in human-like androids, such as the HRP-C4.