The aim of this research is to construct Cyberplasm, a micro-scale robot using principles of synthetic biology. This will be accomplished using a combination of cellular device integration, advanced microelectronics and biomimicry; an approach that mimics animal models; in the latter we will imitate some of the behavior of the marine animal the sea lamprey. Synthetic muscle will generate undulatory movements to propel the robot through the water. Synthetic sensors derived from yeast cells will be reporting signals from the immediate environment. These signals will be processed by an electronic nervous system. The electronic brain will, in turn, generate signals to drive the muscle cells that will use glucose for energy. All electronic components will be powered by a microbial fuel cell integrated into the robot body. This research aims to harness the power of synthetic biology at the cellular level by integrating specific gene ?parts? into bacteria, yeast and mammalian cells to carry out device like functions. Moreover this approach will allow the cells/bacteria to be "simplified" so that the input/output (I/O) requirements of device integration can be addressed. In particular we plan to use visual receptors to couple electronics to both sensation and actuation through light signals. In addition synthetic biology will be carried out at the systems level by interfacing multiple cellular /bacterial devices together, connecting to an electronic brain and in effect creating a multi-cellular biohybrid micro-robot, we named Cyberplasm. Motile function will be achieved by engineering muscle cells to have the minimal cellular machinery required for excitation/contraction coupling and contractile function. The muscle will be powered by mitochondrial conversion of glucose to ATP, an energetic currency in biological cells, hence combining power generation with actuation.
Broader Aspects The development of Cyberplasm will impact the imagination of the general public, the private sector, and education in general. The robotics industry (in terms of biotech, healthcare, agriculture and healthcare) is worth billions of dollars annually. A hybrid bio/synthetic robot would completely revolutionize aspects of this industry allowing robots to operate with a whole new level of control and functionality. Amongst the fundamental issues that this research addresses is the integration of bacteria into fuel cells, as well as yeast and mammalian cells into engineered devices such as sensors and actuators, respectively. Moreover, we will address the I/O problem by developing mechanisms for these engineered cells to communicate with electronics. The knowledge to be gained (namely at the biology-electronics interface) will not only contribute to advance the field as such by laying a solid ground upon which novel concepts and developments can be built, but could have a far-reaching, longer term industrial impact in industries such as those healthcare, where biosensors and drug delivery systems could be vastly improved by harnessing the sensing capabilities and efficiency of such cellular machines. Owing to its ?cybernetic? nature, the project can be effectively used as a vehicle to foster the enthusiasm and interest of lay public and, specifically, for the teaching of science in general and synthetic biology to students, ranging from primary to secondary/high schools.
This project involved muscle production for Cyberplasm, a micro-scale robot. In order to propel the robot in the desired direction, this de novo generated muscle actuator has to be able to contract under the control of an electronic brain via an optical interface. We used a synthetic biology approach to accomplish this aim. We produced the first generation of myotubes, unitary muscle elements. Sensors would report signals from the immediate environment to the electronic brain of Cyberplasm (Figure), where they will be processed. The electronic brain, which contains the central pattern generator (CPG), would generate the signal output, e.g. optical impulses delivered by organic light-emitting diodes (oLEDs) to the muscle driving an increase of intracellular Ca2+ and consequential muscle contractions. Muscle would be synthetized to respond to blue light, perhaps by expressing a variant of channelrhodopsin. Energy for the muscle units will be derived from their utilization of glucose, sourced from a reservoir constructed within the robot body and utilized by the muscle at demand. The fuel cell would power the electronic brain, and it could be a printable thin battery integrated within the robot body, which will be made of a flexible polymer; adhesive will be used to attach muscle to the body.