Coming Soon – Robots With Bacteria-Controlled Brains

Warren Ruder, an assistant professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, and doctoral student Keith Heyde, used a mathematical model – a computer simulation – to demonstrate that bacteria can control the behavior of an inanimate device like a robot.

The research results are published in Scientific Reports with the title “Exploring Host-Microbiome Interactions using an in Silico Model of Biomimetic Robots and Engineered Living Cells.” The paper is freely available online.

“Basically we were trying to find out from the mathematical model if we could build a living microbiome on a nonliving host and control the host through the microbiome,” said Ruder.

We found that robots may indeed be able to function with a bacterial brain.

Mobile Robots With Living Colonies of Bacteria That Direct The Robots’ Behavior

Experimental setupThe researchers used synthetic biology and biomimetic robotics to design, model and computationally simulate a hybrid robot-bacteria system. The bacteria in the simulation – a colony of synthetically engineered E. coli bacteria – exhibited their genetic circuitry by either turning green or red, according to what they ate. The robot in the simulation was equipped with sensors and a miniature microscope to measure the color of bacteria telling it where and how fast to go depending upon the pigment and intensity of color.

The scientists observed complex behavior, at times similar to predatory behavior, emerging when feedback from the robot to the bacterial colony is allowed.

Though the research has been limited to computer simulations so far, Ruder is building real-world robots controlled by bacteria that he will engineer in his lab. The robots will have the ability to read bacterial gene expression levels in E. coli using miniature fluorescent microscopes, interpret the readings as commands, and respond accordingly.

“The final step will be to take the engineered living cells that we now have in the laboratory with the robotic system that we now have, and link them together with an interface technology called microfluidics,” says Ruder in the video. “By building small reactors where these cells can live and placing those bioreactors on the robot, the complete system can be realized to the point that we have a mobile robot that harbors living colonies of bacteria that direct the robot’s behavior.”

Such robots with bacteria-controlled brains could have important theoretical and practical applications to agriculture, health care, and environmental engineering.

“We have designed, modeled, and simulated a biomimetic system that allows us to explore natural phenomena through both synthetic biological and robotic programming,” conclude the researchers. “We expect this model system will have implications in fields ranging from synthetic biology and ecology to mobile robotics.”

The study shows that biosynthetic experiments can be done with a minimal amount of funds. The scientists hope their research will help “democratize” the field of synthetic biology by opening it up to a much larger pool of researchers and students.

Images from Virginia Tech and Wikimedia Commons.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.