Technology 3 min read

Robot Arm With Engineered Bacteria can Taste Chemicals in Environment

In a breakthrough in biosensing and robotics, researchers from UC Davis and Carnegie Mellon University successfully developed a robot arm that can taste chemicals in the environment.

Image courtesy of University of California, Davis / Screengrab from UC Davis Youtube Channel

Image courtesy of University of California, Davis / Screengrab from UC Davis Youtube Channel

Engineers at the University of California, Davis and Carnegie Mellon University have developed a robot arm that comes with engineered bacteria for tasting specific chemicals.

The researchers at the biomedical engineering department at UC Davis and CMU had a goal of building synthetic microdata for soft robots. With this, the machines would not only help repair the environment, but they could also contribute to energy generation and biosensing.

The new gripper arm is proof that the goal is within reach.

Soft robot designs are often inspired by nature. As a result, engineers use lightweight, soft, and flexible materials to create machines that are as versatile as living things.

By adding living cells to the soft robots, the scientists were able to take the goal of creating biological-mechanical hybrid machines to the next level.

In a statement, co-author and associate professor of mechanical engineering at CMU, Carmel Majidi said:

“By combining our work in flexible electronics and robotic skin with synthetic biology, we are closer to future breakthroughs like soft biohybrid robots that can adapt their abilities to sense, feel and move in response to changes in their environmental conditions.”

Using Engineered Bacteria to Enhance Biosensing Capability of the Robot Arm

To give the new device a sense of smell, the researchers created a module based on E. Coli bacteria, which produces fluorescent protein in response to chemical IPTG. Often found in wells, the bacteria has a flexible porous membrane that enables the smooth entry of chemicals while keeping the cells in at the same time.

The engineers built the biosensing module into the surface of a flexible gripper on the robot arm. That way, the gripper would be able to “taste” its surroundings through its fingers.

When the chemical crosses the membrane and the cells fluorescence, an electronic circuit in the module detects light. As a result, the signal travels down the gripper’s arm to the control unit, which offers a choice of either picking something up or release it.

In their test, the researchers got the gripper to check laboratory water for IPTG. It then had to decide whether to place an object in the bath or not.

Several challenges come with developing such a biohybrid robot.

For one, the engineers have only been able to get it to taste only one chemical. Also,  the machine still finds it hard to detect changes in concentration. There’s one other thing.

While an ecosystem of bacteria exists naturally on our body, the researchers have to maintain a stable population of microbes in the machine continuously. That’s no easy task.

Read More: Training Robots to Understand What Humans Want

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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