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Researchers Use Light-Sensitive Tissue to Build Highly Articulated Robots

With recent achievement of several advances, researchers at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania have genetically engineered muscle cells that can flex as a result of light reaction.

Light-activated skeletal muscles at MIT

The light-sensitive tissue can be used to create highly articulated robots. Dubbed “bio-integrated” approach, it enables robotic animals to move efficiently like living counterparts. This unique approach will be reported in the journal Lab on a Chip.

By partnering with Roger Kamm, Asada and MIT postdoc Mahmut Selman Sakar developed this new approach. The researchers chose a skeletal muscle in their robotic design. Skeletal muscles require external stimuli for flexibility.

Generally, neurons send electrical impulses cause muscle contraction. Electrodes were used in the lab for stimulation of muscle fibers with less current.

Asada and his colleagues explored a new discipline called optogenetics that allows stimulation of cardiac cells to contract. Skeletal muscles were tested to achieve a similar feat. The researchers cultured myoblasts that were then genetically altered to express a protein that was activated by light. Myoblasts wee fused into long muscle fibers. Then, the dish was illuminated with a blue light of 20-ms pulses. The genetically altered fibers were found to create the following response such as contraction of specific fiber on specific focus of light beam, while larger beams illuminating multiple fibers stimulated these fibers to shrink.

For the first time, skeletal muscles were successfully stimulated using and the researchers created a new “wireless” method to control muscles. Asada further progressed to grow muscle fibers with a mixture of hydrogel to create a 3-D muscle tissue, followed by subjecting the tissue to light stimulation. The flexible response of 3-D muscle was similar to that of individual muscle fibers.

The efficacy of engineered tissue was validated using a Christopher Chen-designed small micromechanical chip comprising multiple wells, each having two flexible posts. Muscle strips were attached to each post, and the tissue was stimulated with light. Contraction of muscle pulls in the posts. Based on the stiffness of each post, the group evaluated the muscle’s force using the bent angle of each post.

The researchers envision vast applications for engineered muscles as well as the microchip.


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