A recent breakthrough at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania is set to make the spastic and jerky movements of robots a thing of the past. Using animals for inspiration, researchers have genetically engineered muscle cells to flex in response to light. The breakthrough could result in the creation of highly articulated robots that move with the grace of real creatures, while also giving them similar levels of strength.
Rebecca Boyle of PopSci reports:
This is the first time tough, powerful skeletal muscle has been modified to react to light. Optogenetics researchers have done it with cardiac cells, which are already primed to beat on their own - now skeletal muscle, which normally requires some outside stimulus, can contract and expand at the command of light bursts. Harry Asada, an engineering professor at MIT, said it's more effective and less bulky than stimulating muscle with electrodes, especially for a robotics system where light weight and mobility are key.
Optogenetics entails introducing new genes into cells that make them react to a pulse of light, usually short bursts of laser light. Asada's team worked with myoblasts, cultures of skeletal muscle cells, to express a light-activated protein. They combined several myoblasts into long muscle fibers and exposed them to 20-millisecond pulses of blue light. In the video [above], the blue dot represents the pulses, and you can see the fibers contract in response. A targeted burst of light makes one fiber contract, while a more diffuse beam can make the whole sheet move.
Be sure to check out Boyle's entire article.
Details of the study can be found at the journal Lab on a Chip.