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A robot arm that tastes with engineered bacteria

26.08.2019 20:51

A robotic gripping arm that uses engineered bacteria to “taste” for a specific chemical has been developed by a group of engineers including Branco Weiss Alumnus Cheemeng Tan. The device uses a biosensing module based on E. coli bacteria engineered to respond to the chemical IPTG by producing a fluorescent protein.

The bacterial cells reside in wells with a flexible, porous membrane that allows chemicals to enter but keeps the cells inside. This biosensing module is built into the surface of a flexible gripper on a robotic arm, so the gripper can “taste” the environment through its fingers. As a test, the gripper was able to check a laboratory water bath for IPTG then decide whether or not to place an object in the bath.

The device is a proof-of-concept for biologically-based soft robotics. Soft robotics uses lightweight, flexible and soft materials to create machines that match the versatility of living things, and soft robot designs often draw inspiration form nature. Adding actual living cells to soft robots brings scientists another step closer to creating biological-mechanical hybrid machines.

“Our long-term vision is about building a synthetic microbiota for soft robots that can help with repair, energy generation or biosensing of the environment,” says Dr. Tan. The work was published June 26 in the journal Science Robotics.


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