Are ‘biological robots’ the future of robotics? Bacteria-controlled robots cracked

It’s a shocking find: bacteria are capable of controlling a robotic car. Scientists replaced a robot’s “brain” with a bacterial community. Intriguingly, the robotic car was able to move forward to food sources – and even develop complex actions related to predator mindset. Instead of relying on electrical signals and neurotransmitters just as a brain does, biochemical signals maybe passed between microorganisms were used.

While scientists explore the possibility of self-awareness in robots, and others invest into controlling artificial intelligence – to make sure robots don’t take dominance over mankind as depicted by the Terminator movies – others are finding ways to control them via microorganisms.

Published in the Scientific Reports journal, expert scientists from Virginia Tech fabricated an “in silico” model of a living microbiome. They used synthetic biology engineering to come up with the robotic host that will be controlled by the bacterial community.

The scientists discovered that the movements of the robotic car were based on the programmed biochemical network dynamics of the microbiome.

The bacteria used was not really all-natural. The scientists still bioengineered them to function well with the robotic car. In the past, other scientists have already proposed using bioengineered bacteria to help clean up oil spills, which are very damaging not only to the affected bodies of water, but also to marine life and coral reefs. Oil spills usually take months before it can be completely cleaned, and sometimes some plants and fishes do not survive the event.

However, bioengineered bacteria are from being polished. Not all strains are able to survive in the harsh living conditions. Frighteningly, some strains are too robust, creating concern among scientists and environmentalists that they could potentially wreak havoc to the ecosystem if left unregulated.

So, using robots could help put up a barrier that will prevent the bacteria from being destructive. While its actions can be limited, the bacteria can still interact with the environment using the robot.

The gene network is then integrated with the robot, which has a microfluidic chemostat that functions identically as the microbiome’s environment. This means that the robot simulates a living organism for the bacteria to colonize and eventually influence control.

How is the Bacteria controlling a robot’s actions?

The bacteria were bioengineered to emit green or red fluorescent proteins depending on certain conditions found on its live environment. The robot has a sensor that picks up the color of the light, and it then moves either to the left or the right depending on the color.

The researchers placed sugary food sources in the environment as bait for the bacteria. The robot was drawn to the said food sources, indicating that the bacteria is aware that there are sources nearby.

As an added experiment, the researchers allowed the robot to send back signals to the bacteria. Surprisingly, the engineered bacteria used the robot’s information to act more like a predator. There were actions close to stalking and pouncing that the robot performed based on the reactions of the bacteria.

The reason behind the venture? Why do we need Bacteria controlled robots?

Dr. Warren C. Ruder from Virgina Tech said that they were trying to determine from a mathematical model if they could develop a living microbiome of a host with no life, that could be controlled using a microbiome.

Ruder told Tech Times:”These robots provide a great tool for understanding the interactions of bacteria with their environment. The robots themselves could eventually be used to transport fragile, weak strains of bacteria to the environment to perform a bioremediation task, such as cleaning up toxic spills.”

The scientists said that their study opens up possibilities to researchers for designing, modeling and building gene networks in order to investigate and control certain cellular behaviors. By doing so, scientists can develop better medicine and achieve more breakthroughs in the scientific field.

Possible Applications

Future researchers and doctors can then perform experiments in order to find out the behavior of certain bacteria. This could help them treat patients better by knowing how the bacterial infection works, or how they could bioengineer a bacteria to work in the patient’s favor. In theory, the researchers would observe the behavior of the bacteria in a simulated environment. Just like what the Virginia Tech scientists did, food sources can be placed in a controlled environment. Other factors such as antibiotics, organs and blood cells could also be simulated. More accurate simulations mean more accurate study results.

After observing the behavior, the researchers can then devise a plan on how to neutralize or manipulate the bacteria. They may also find out why the bacteria is damaging or performing a certain task.

Could scientist develop a biological robot in the future?

Ruder did not deny that it could be a possibility, however he clarified that the experiments and robot systems were just for the advancement of scientific understanding in the world.

A future ‘terminator’ or ‘robocop’ run on ‘bacteria brain’ may just remain a fictional fantasy even with today’s technological and scientific advancements – although the thought does send shivers down the spine. Bacteria and robots teaming up together to overwhelm humans and take control?


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