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“Live” Cyberplasm Microbot Designed for Disease Detection

By BiotechDaily International staff writers
Posted on 11 Apr 2012
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A “living” prototype microbot is under development that could someday identify diseases in humans.

Called Cyberplasm, it will combine advanced microelectronics with latest developments in biomimicry (technology inspired by nature). The goal is for Cyberplasm to have an electronic nervous system, “eye” and “nose” sensors derived from mammalian cells, as well as artificial muscles that utilize glucose as an energy source to propel it. The key purpose is to engineer and incorporate robot components that respond to light and chemicals in the same way as biologic systems. This is a totally new way of utilizing robotics technology.

Cyberplasm is being developed over the next few years as part of an international collaboration funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF; Arlington, VA, USA). The UK-based work is taking place at Newcastle University (UK). The project originated from a sandbox session on synthetic biology jointly funded by the two organizations.

Cyberplasm will be devised to mimic key functions of the sea lamprey, a creature found mostly in the Atlantic Ocean. It is believed this application will enable the microbot to be very sensitive and responsive to any environment into which it is placed. Future uses could include the ability to swim inconspicuously through the human body to detect a wide host of diseases.

The sea lamprey [Petromyzon marinus] has a very primitive nervous system, which is easier to mimic than more complicated nervous systems. This, combined with the fact that it swims, made the sea lamprey the best candidate for the scientists on which to base Cyberplasm.

Once it is developed, the Cyberplasm prototype will be less than 1-cm long. Future versions could possibly be less than 1-mm long or even constructed on a nanoscale. “Nothing matches a living creature’s natural ability to see and smell its environment and therefore to collect data on what's going on around it,” said bioengineer Dr. Daniel Frankel of Newcastle University, who is leading the UK-based work.

Cyberplasm’s sensors are being developed to respond to external stimuli by transforming them into electronic impulses that are sent to an electronic “brain” equipped with sophisticated microchips. This brain will then send electronic messages to artificial muscles instructing them how to contract and relax, enabling the robot to navigate its way safely using an undulating motion. Similarly, data on the chemical composition of the robot’s surroundings can be collected and stored via these systems for later recovery by the robot’s operators.

Cyberplasm could also represent the beginning of important advances in, for example, sophisticated prosthetics where living muscle tissue might be engineered to contract and relax in response to stimulation from light waves or electronic signals. “We’re currently developing and testing Cyberplasm’s individual components,” stated Daniel Frankel. “We hope to get to the assembly stage within a couple of years. We believe Cyberplasm could start being used in real-world situations within five years.”

The UK component of the Cyberplasm project is a three-year initiative that is receiving EPSRC funding of just over GBP 298,000. EPSRC is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than GBP 800 million a year in a wide range of topics--from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology (IT) to structural engineering.

NSF is an independent US agency created by the US Congress in 1950. With an annual budget of approximately USD 6.9 billion (FY 2010), it is the funding source for about 20% of all federally-supported basic research conducted by US colleges and universities. In many fields, such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing.

Related Links:

UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
US National Science Foundation
Newcastle University

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