Harvard Scientists BioEngineer “Stingray” Robot from Heart Muscles

Karaghen Hudson and Michael Rosnach]

Karaghen Hudson and Michael Rosnach]

Over the past year or so we have seen engineers develop robots that mimic the behaviors and movements of living organisms. Some drones can maneuver through the air like insects, or through the water like dolphins, or on land like a cheetah.

But new research out of Harvard University has now yielded a new kind of robot. In fact, while this machine has been completely fabricated in a lab, it is actually made from the heart cells and is not wholly unnatural.

“It’s alive, but it’s not an organism — it can’t replicate, it can’t reproduce,” explains lead study author Kit Parker. “We make them in batches of five or six, and they live about a week, maybe less.”

The Harvard University bioengineer goes on to say that the team made skeletons designed to mimic the shape of a stingray, but made of gold—so chosen for its chemically inert nature. The skeletons were then covered with a thin, stretchy plastic and a thicker “body” of silicone rubber. Then, atop the organism, they placed the muscle cells from rat hearts which, when stimulated, pulled the “fins” of the “stingray” downward.

This, of course, resulted in a form of automation.

Parker continues, “It turns out the musculature in the stingray has to do the same thing as the heart does: it has to move fluids,” and so, he says, “When we have a light in the front [of the ray], we activate an electrical signal in the tissue and it propagates like a wave through the musculature.”

Basically, you get an undulatory kind of motion in the fins.

He adds, “We are making assumptions from our physiology textbooks that a heart beats the same way from every beat; But if you talk to cardiovascular surgeons, they would tell no, it always beats differently.”

“Ultimately,” he hopes,“we want to build a whole heart.” he hopes this research will lead to the building of replacement organs for sick children. Finally, Parker also notes that the team is already looking at building a robot based on another marine life form; but that goal is more of a proof of concept—that they have developed a systematic approach to this process—which they can then continue to perfect and, hopefully and eventually, implement.

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