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Bioengineers share their biobot blueprints with the world

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By sharing their blueprints, these researchers may help create tomorrow's drug-delivering biobots.

Bioengineers Ritu Raman and Rashid Bashir know biobots. They’ve been building them for years as part of their work within Bashir’s research group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Five years ago, they developed bio-bots that could move thanks to a power supply provided by rat heart cells. Now, the team wants to help other bioengineers build biobots of their own. They’ve shared their blueprint in a paper published in the journal Nature Protocols.

“Biobots are robots that use biological tissues to perform certain functional tasks,” Raman, the paper’s lead author, told Digital Trends. “Our biobots use skeletal muscle to walk, but our paper discusses extending our methodology to other tissue types and other functional behaviors. The muscle we use is genetically engineered to contract in response to blue light, so we can get our biobots to walk in the direction of a flashing light stimulus.”

In the paper, which was featured on the cover of the journal, the researchers also describe recipes and protocols for developing biobots in order to inform other bioengineers.

“We believe that the next generation of engineers and scientists will benefit greatly from learning how to ‘build with biology,’ and that biological materials will be an invaluable addition to the inventors’ toolbox,” Raman said. She and her team have developed a class for undergraduates at the University of Illinois and University of California, Merced, and now want to broaden this network to include researchers from other institutions.

Through their research, Raman and Bashir hope to demonstrate how living cells can contribute to the development of complex systems. “In the near future, we hope that this research can be applied towards applications in healthcare such as high-throughput drug testing, dynamic functional implants, and targeted drug delivery,” Raman said. “Once we have developed methodologies for engineering robust multi-cellular multi-functional biobots, we hope that biobots can be targeted at any real-world application that is currently addressed with robots made from man-made materials.

“I hope that other researchers can use this paper as a foundational resource on how to design, manufacture, and optimize a bio-integrated machine,” she added, “and that it inspires them to use biobots to address technical challenges we face as a society.”