Miniature robots that imitate microscopic organisms could one day wriggle inside the human body to solve problems, researchers say. The soft, active materials comprising these machines might also lead to clothing that enhances muscle power.
Modern robots are generally built from rigid parts, which causes them to be vulnerable to damage from bumps, scrapes, twists and falls, and often makes it impossible to wriggle past obstacles. But researchers inspired by octopuses, worms and starfish that thrive despite not having hard skeletons are devising flexible robots from soft, elastic plastic and rubber. These can squirm under obstacles, lift up to 120 times their own weight and change their color to hide in or stand out from their surroundings.
As the work behind soft robots gets more mature, some engineers are also starting to explore the possibility of making them smaller. The hope is that such microrobots could play a role in healthcare — for instance, delivering medicine directly to where the body needs it, reopening clogged blood vessels or helping to seal wounds.
Trees that grow and glow may one day replace street lamps, cutting down on electricity use and CO2 emissions, according to a group of synthetic biologists. The biohackers at Singularity University in Moffett Field, Calif., plan to crossbreed a plant and bioluminescent bacteria. If successful, their result will be a fully viable herb that can emit light.
“We are going to insert five different genes from a bacterium into a plant,” says cell and molecular biologist Kyle Taylor, a member of the team trying to bring the hybrid to life. The group plans to import bioluminescent genes from the marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri into the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the family that also includes cabbage and mustard.
They put their proposed project up on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, offering stickers, T-shirts, seeds of their glowing floral creations or the grown plants themselves to potential backers. With more than a month remaining for contributors to give, their Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity project had already attracted more than 1,000 donors and had surpassed its funding goal.
Scientists working to make exact chemical copies of fossil fuels from living microbes say they have scored a major victory in the lab. Merging genes from the camphor tree, soil- and gut-dwelling bacteria, and a microorganism that is lethal to insects, researchers have produced molecular replicas of petroleum-based fuels.
The team, composed of researchers from Exeter University in the United Kingdom and Shell, engineered the DNA of E. coli, a bacterium commonly found in the gut of mammals, to alter how it metabolizes its food so that it excretes the fossil-fuel replicas.
The new fuel doesn’t need to be heavily processed after it’s produced to work in combustion engines, says study coauthor John Love. It could be a solution that bypasses a major hurdle for conventional biofuels, which are not fully compatible with vehicles already out on the road.
“Modern engines are not suited to using these biofuels without major modifications and/or loss of performance,” Love, an associate professor of plant and industrial biotechnology at the University of Exeter, tells Txchnologist. “Ideally, you’d want to replace the fossil fuel with a biofuel that matches it exactly in chemical structure. We have engineered bacteria to produce such a fuel: biological gasoline or bio-alkanes. These hydrocarbons can be added directly to any engine, including a jet engine.”