Biocomputing is an emerging field that aims to use biological components for signal processing. Muscle cells, being both electrically and mechanically responsive, are promising candidates for this new approach to information processing. Achieving controlled and reliable directional signal flow using muscle cell-based living electromechanical circuit elements can transform how bioelectrical and biomechanical interfaces are engineered, and impact both fundamental science and bioengineering applications. The proposed research will lead to a better understanding of cell-cell and cell-environment communication in muscle cell networks, impacting potential future applications ranging from biorobotics and human-machine interfaces to bioengineering approaches for understanding and treating muscular degenerative disorders and cardiac arrhythmia. Such advancements will address socially important problems, such as limb loss and heart diseases. Beyond professional publications and a proposed co-organized conference symposium related to this research, educational and outreach activities are planned for university, high school, and middle school students and teachers. This award is being made jointly by two Programs. (1) Biomedical Engineering, in the Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems Division (Engineering Directorate); and (2) Instrument Development for Biological Research, in the Division of Biological Infrastructure (Biological Sciences Directorate).
The goal of this project is to examine the properties of a new type of diode, made from a novel combination of excitable muscle cells and non-excitable fibroblast cells, and then study more complex interactions between these cell types that are organized to function as logic gates and eventually as electromechanical circuits. To achieve this goal, this proposal tests the specific hypothesis that a non-uniform arrangement of these two cell types can be engineered to allow signal propagation in the excitable to non-excitable direction, but not the reverse. The first research objective is to study diode-like behavior of micropatterned muscle cells using single-cell mechanical and single-cell electrical stimulation with uniquely combined microelectrode arrays, 3-dimensional fluorescence, and atomic force microscopy for electrical, optical/chemical, and mechanical interrogation of individual cells, or populations of cells, confined to defined geometries. The second research objective is to study various micropatterned geometries and ratios of excitable/non-excitable cell combinations to investigate the fundamental properties of the signal propagation, with the explicit goal of ultimately engineering logical gate analogues. The proposed research will pave the way for opening up a new field in which muscle cell-based structures can be used as circuit elements that subsequently serve as bioelectrical and biomechanical interfaces, and as control units for artificial bio-systems with clear potential opportunities for biocomputing applications and human/machine interfaces.