Scientists at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania are taking more than inspiration from nature — they’re taking ingredients. The group has genetically engineered muscle cells to flex in response to light, and is using the light-sensitive tissue to build highly articulated robots. This “bio-integrated” approach, as they call it, may one day enable robotic animals that move with the strength and flexibility of their living counterparts.

The group is the first to successfully stimulate skeletal muscle using light, providing a new “wireless” way to control muscles. Going a step further, the team grew muscle fibers with a mixture of hydrogel to form a 3-D muscle tissue, and again stimulated the tissue with light — finding that the 3-D muscle responded in much the same way as individual muscle fibers, bending and twisting in areas exposed to beams of light.

The light-sensitive muscle tissue exhibits a wide range of motions, which may enable highly articulated, flexible robots — a goal the group is now working toward.


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