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Scientists build tiny biological robots from human cells

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Scientists build tiny biological robots from human cells


Researchers at Tufts University and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute have created tiny biological robots that they call Anthrobots from human tracheal cells that can move across a surface and have been found to encourage the growth of neurons across a region of damage in a lab dish.

The multicellular robots, ranging in size from the width of a human hair to the point of a sharpened pencil, were made to self-assemble and shown to have a remarkable healing effect on other cells. The discovery is a starting point for the researchers’ vision to use patient-derived biobots as new therapeutic tools for regeneration, healing, and treatment of disease.

The work follows from earlier research in the laboratories of Michael Levin, Vannevar Bush Professor of Biology at Tufts University School of Arts & Sciences, and Josh Bongard at the University of Vermont in which they created multicellular biological robots from frog embryo cells called Xenobots, capable of navigating passageways, collecting material, recording information, healing themselves from injury, and even replicating for a few cycles on their own. At the time, researchers did not know if these capabilities were dependent on their being derived from an amphibian embryo, or if biobots could be constructed from cells of other species.

In the current study, published in Advanced Science, Levin, along with PhD student Gizem Gumuskaya discovered that bots can in fact be created from adult human cells without any genetic modification and they are demonstrating some capabilities beyond what was observed with the Xenobots. The discovery starts to answer a broader question that the lab has posed — what are the rules that govern how cells assemble and work together in the body, and can the cells be taken out of their natural context and recombined into different “body plans” to carry out other functions by design?

In this case, researchers gave human cells, after decades of quiet life in the trachea, a chance to reboot and find ways of creating new structures and tasks. “We wanted to probe what cells can do besides create default features in the body,” said Gumuskaya, who earned a degree in architecture before coming into biology. “By reprogramming interactions between cells, new multicellular structures can be created, analogous to the way stone and brick can be arranged into different structural elements like walls, archways or columns.” The researchers found that not only could the cells create new multicellular shapes, but they could move in different ways over a surface of human neurons grown in a lab dish and encourage new growth to fill in gaps caused by scratching the layer of cells.

Exactly how the Anthrobots encourage growth of neurons is not yet clear, but the researchers confirmed that neurons grew under the area covered by a clustered assembly of Anthrobots, which they called a “superbot.”

“The cellular assemblies we construct in the lab can have capabilities that go beyond what they do in the body,” said Levin, who also serves as the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts and is an associate faculty member of the Wyss Institute. “It is fascinating and completely unexpected that normal patient tracheal cells, without modifying their DNA, can move on their own and encourage neuron growth across a region of damage,” said Levin. “We’re now looking at how the healing mechanism works, and asking what else these constructs can do.”

The advantages of using human cells include the ability to construct bots from a patient’s own cells to perform therapeutic work without the risk of triggering an immune response or requiring immunosuppressants. They only last a few weeks before breaking down, and so can easily be re-absorbed into the body after their work is done.

In addition, outside of the body, Anthrobots can only survive in very specific laboratory conditions, and there is no risk of exposure or unintended spread outside the lab. Likewise, they do not reproduce, and they have no genetic edits, additions or deletions, so there is no risk of their evolving beyond existing safeguards.

How Are Anthrobots Made?

Each Anthrobot starts out as a single cell, derived from an adult donor. The cells come from the surface of the trachea and are covered with hairlike projections called cilia that wave back and forth. The cilia help the tracheal cells push out tiny particles that find their way into air passages of the lung. We all experience the work of ciliated cells when we take the final step of expelling the particles and excess fluid by coughing or clearing our throats. Earlier studies by others had shown that when the cells are grown in the lab, they spontaneously form tiny multicellular spheres called organoids.

The researchers developed growth conditions that encouraged the cilia to face outward on organoids. Within a few days they started moving around, driven by the cilia acting like oars. They noted different shapes and types of movement — the first. important feature observed of the biorobotics platform. Levin says that if other features could be added to the Anthrobots (for example, contributed by different cells), they could be designed to respond to their environment, and travel to and perform functions in the body, or help build engineered tissues in the lab.

The team, with the help of Simon Garnier at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, characterized the different types of Anthrobots that were produced. They observed that bots fell into a few discrete categories of shape and movement, ranging in size from 30 to 500 micrometers (from the thickness of a human hair to the point of a sharpened pencil), filling an important niche between nanotechnology and larger engineered devices.

Some were spherical and fully covered in cilia, and some were irregular or football shaped with more patchy coverage of cilia, or just covered with cilia on one side. They traveled in straight lines, moved in tight circles, combined those movements, or just sat around and wiggled. The spherical ones fully covered with cilia tended to be wigglers. The Anthrobots with cilia distributed unevenly tended to move forward for longer stretches in straight or curved paths. They usually survived about 45-60 days in laboratory conditions before they naturally biodegraded.

“Anthrobots self-assemble in the lab dish,” said Gumuskaya, who created the Anthrobots. “Unlike Xenobots, they don’t require tweezers or scalpels to give them shape, and we can use adult cells — even cells from elderly patients — instead of embryonic cells. It’s fully scalable — we can produce swarms of these bots in parallel, which is a good start for developing a therapeutic tool.”

Little Healers

Because Levin and Gumuskaya ultimately plan to make Anthrobots with therapeutic applications, they created a lab test to see how the bots might heal wounds. The model involved growing a two-dimensional layer of human neurons, and simply by scratching the layer with a thin metal rod, they created an open ‘wound’ devoid of cells.

To ensure the gap would be exposed to a dense concentration of Anthrobots, they created “superbots” a cluster that naturally forms when the Anthrobots are confined to a small space. The superbots were made up primarily of circlers and wigglers, so they would not wander too far away from the open wound.

Although it might be expected that genetic modifications of Anthrobot cells would be needed to help the bots encourage neural growth, surprisingly the unmodified Anthrobots triggered substantial regrowth, creating a bridge of neurons as thick as the rest of the healthy cells on the plate. Neurons did not grow in the wound where Anthrobots were absent. At least in the simplified 2D world of the lab dish, the Anthrobot assemblies encouraged efficient healing of live neural tissue.

According to the researchers, further development of the bots could lead to other applications, including clearing plaque buildup in the arteries of atherosclerosis patients, repairing spinal cord or retinal nerve damage, recognizing bacteria or cancer cells, or delivering drugs to targeted tissues. The Anthrobots could in theory assist in healing tissues, while also laying down pro-regenerative drugs.

Making New Blueprints, Restoring Old Ones

Gumuskaya explained that cells have the innate ability to self-assemble into larger structures in certain fundamental ways. “The cells can form layers, fold, make spheres, sort and separate themselves by type, fuse together, or even move,” Gumuskaya said. “Two important differences from inanimate bricks are that cells can communicate with each other and create these structures dynamically, and each cell is programmed with many functions, like movement, secretion of molecules, detection of signals and more. We are just figuring out how to combine these elements to create new biological body plans and functions — different than those found in nature.”

Taking advantage of the inherently flexible rules of cellular assembly helps the scientists construct the bots, but it can also help them understand how natural body plans assemble, how the genome and environment work together to create tissues, organs, and limbs, and how to restore them with regenerative treatments.



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Researchers create artificial cells that act like living cells

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Researchers create artificial cells that act like living cells


In a new study published in Nature Chemistry, UNC-Chapel Hill researcher Ronit Freeman and her colleagues describe the steps they took to manipulate DNA and proteins — essential building blocks of life — to create cells that look and act like cells from the body. This accomplishment, a first in the field, has implications for efforts in regenerative medicine, drug delivery systems, and diagnostic tools.

“With this discovery, we can think of engineering fabrics or tissues that can be sensitive to changes in their environment and behave in dynamic ways,” says Freeman, whose lab is in the Applied Physical Sciences Department of the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

Cells and tissues are made of proteins that come together to perform tasks and make structures. Proteins are essential for forming the framework of a cell, called the cytoskeleton. Without it, cells wouldn’t be able to function. The cytoskeleton allows cells to be flexible, both in shape and in response to their environment.

Without using natural proteins, the Freeman Lab built cells with functional cytoskeletons that can change shape and react to their surroundings. To do this, they used a new programmable peptide-DNA technology that directs peptides, the building blocks of proteins, and repurposed genetic material to work together to form a cytoskeleton.

“DNA does not normally appear in a cytoskeleton,” Freeman says. “We reprogrammed sequences of DNA so that it acts as an architectural material, binding the peptides together. Once this programmed material was placed in a droplet of water, the structures took shape.”

The ability to program DNA in this way means scientists can create cells to serve specific functions and even fine-tune a cell’s response to external stressors. While living cells are more complex than the synthetic ones created by the Freeman Lab, they are also more unpredictable and more susceptible to hostile environments, like severe temperatures.

“The synthetic cells were stable even at 122 degrees Fahrenheit, opening up the possibility of manufacturing cells with extraordinary capabilities in environments normally unsuitable to human life,” Freeman says.

Instead of creating materials that are made to last, Freeman says their materials are made to task — perform a specific function and then modify themselves to serve a new function. Their application can be customized by adding different peptide or DNA designs to program cells in materials like fabrics or tissues. These new materials can integrate with other synthetic cell technologies, all with potential applications that could revolutionize fields like biotechnology and medicine.

“This research helps us understand what makes life,” Freeman says. “This synthetic cell technology will not just enable us to reproduce what nature does, but also make materials that surpass biology.”



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This alloy is kinky

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This alloy is kinky


Researchers have uncovered a remarkable metal alloy that won’t crack at extreme temperatures due to kinking, or bending, of crystals in the alloy at the atomic level.  A metal alloy composed of niobium, tantalum, titanium, and hafnium has shocked materials scientists with its impressive strength and toughness at both extremely hot and cold temperatures, a combination of properties that seemed so far to be nearly impossible to achieve. In this context, strength is defined as how much force a material can withstand before it is permanently deformed from its original shape, and toughness is its resistance to fracturing (cracking). The alloy’s resilience to bending and fracture across an enormous range of conditions could open the door for a novel class of materials for next-generation engines that can operate at higher efficiencies.

The team, led by Robert Ritchie at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and UC Berkeley, in collaboration with the groups led by professors Diran Apelian at UC Irvine and Enrique Lavernia at Texas A&M University, discovered the alloy’s surprising properties and then figured out how they arise from interactions in the atomic structure. Their work is described in a study that was published April 11, 2024 in Science.

“The efficiency of converting heat to electricity or thrust is determined by the temperature at which fuel is burned — the hotter, the better. However, the operating temperature is limited by the structural materials which must withstand it,” said first author David Cook, a Ph.D. student in Ritchie’s lab. “We have exhausted the ability to further optimize the materials we currently use at high temperatures, and there’s a big need for novel metallic materials. That’s what this alloy shows promise in.”

The alloy in this study is from a new class of metals known as refractory high or medium entropy alloys (RHEAs/RMEAs). Most of the metals we see in commercial or industrial applications are alloys made of one main metal mixed with small quantities of other elements, but RHEAs and RMEAs are made by mixing near-equal quantities of metallic elements with very high melting temperatures, which gives them unique properties that scientists are still unraveling. Ritchie’s group has been investigating these alloys for several years because of their potential for high-temperature applications.

“Our team has done previous work on RHEAs and RMEAs and we have found that these materials are very strong, but generally possess extremely low fracture toughness, which is why we were shocked when this alloy displayed exceptionally high toughness,” said co-corresponding author Punit Kumar, a postdoctoral researcher in the group.

According to Cook, most RMEAs have a fracture toughness less than 10 MPa√m, which makes them some of the most brittle metals on record. The best cryogenic steels, specially engineered to resist fracture, are about 20 times tougher than these materials. Yet the niobium, tantalum, titanium, and hafnium (Nb45Ta25Ti15Hf15) RMEA alloy was able to beat even the cryogenic steel, clocking in at over 25 times tougher than typical RMEAs at room temperature.

But engines don’t operate at room temperature. The scientists evaluated strength and toughness at five temperatures total: -196°C (the temperature of liquid nitrogen), 25°C (room temperature), 800°C, 950°C, and 1200°C. The last temperature is about 1/5 the surface temperature of the sun.

The team found that the alloy had the highest strength in the cold and became slightly weaker as the temperature rose, but still boasted impressive figures throughout the wide range. The fracture toughness, which is calculated from how much force it takes to propagate an existing crack in a material, was high at all temperatures.

Unraveling the atomic arrangements

Almost all metallic alloys are crystalline, meaning that the atoms inside the material are arranged in repeating units. However, no crystal is perfect, they all contain defects. The most prominent defect that moves is called the dislocation, which is an unfinished plane of atoms in the crystal. When force is applied to a metal it causes many dislocations to move to accommodate the shape change. For example, when you bend a paper clip which is made of aluminum, the movement of dislocations inside the paper clip accommodates the shape change. However, the movement of dislocations becomes more difficult at lower temperatures and as a result many materials become brittle at low temperatures because dislocations cannot move. This is why the steel hull of the Titanic fractured when it hit an iceberg. Elements with high melting temperatures and their alloys take this to the extreme, with many remaining brittle up to even 800°C. However, this RMEA bucks the trend, withstanding snapping even at temperatures as low as liquid nitrogen (-196°C).

To understand what was happening inside the remarkable metal, co-investigator Andrew Minor and his team analyzed the stressed samples, alongside unbent and uncracked control samples, using four-dimensional scanning transmission electron microscopy (4D-STEM) and scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) at the National Center for Electron Microscopy, part of Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry.

The electron microscopy data revealed that the alloy’s unusual toughness comes from an unexpected side effect of a rare defect called a kink band. Kink bands form in a crystal when an applied force causes strips of the crystal to collapse on themselves and abruptly bend. The direction in which the crystal bends in these strips increases the force that dislocations feel, causing them to move more easily. On the bulk level, this phenomenon causes the material to soften (meaning that less force has to be applied to the material as it is deformed). The team knew from past research that kink bands formed easily in RMEAs, but assumed that the softening effect would make the material less tough by making it easier for a crack to spread through the lattice. But in reality, this is not the case.

“We show, for the first time, that in the presence of a sharp crack between atoms, kink bands actually resist the propagation of a crack by distributing damage away from it, preventing fracture and leading to extraordinarily high fracture toughness,” said Cook.

The Nb45Ta25Ti15Hf15 alloy will need to undergo a lot more fundamental research and engineering testing before anything like a jet plane turbine or SpaceX rocket nozzle is made from it, said Ritchie, because mechanical engineers rightfully require a deep understanding of how their materials perform before they use them in the real world. However, this study indicates that the metal has potential to build the engines of the future.

This research was conducted by David H. Cook, Punit Kumar, Madelyn I. Payne, Calvin H. Belcher, Pedro Borges, Wenqing Wang, Flynn Walsh, Zehao Li, Arun Devaraj, Mingwei Zhang, Mark Asta, Andrew M. Minor, Enrique J. Lavernia, Diran Apelian, and Robert O. Ritchie, scientists at Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and UC Irvine, with funding from the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. Experimental and computational analysis was conducted at the Molecular Foundry and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center — both are DOE Office of Science user facilities.



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Giant galactic explosion exposes galaxy pollution in action

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Giant galactic explosion exposes galaxy pollution in action


A team of international researchers studied galaxy NGC 4383, in the nearby Virgo cluster, revealing a gas outflow so large that it would take 20,000 years for light to travel from one side to the other.

The discovery was published today in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Lead author Dr Adam Watts, from The University of Western Australia node at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said the outflow was the result of powerful stellar explosions in the central regions of the galaxy that could eject enormous amounts of hydrogen and heavier elements.

The mass of gas ejected is equivalent to more than 50 million Suns.

“Very little is known about the physics of outflows and their properties because outflows are very hard to detect,” Dr Watts said.

“The ejected gas is quite rich in heavy elements giving us a unique view of the complex process of mixing between hydrogen and metals in the outflowing gas.

“In this particular case, we detected oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and many other chemical elements.”

Gas outflows are crucial to regulate how fast and for how long galaxies can keep forming stars. The gas ejected by these explosions pollutes the space between stars within a galaxy, and even between galaxies, and can float in the intergalactic medium forever.

The high-resolution map was produced with data from the MAUVE survey, co-led by ICRAR researchers Professors Barbara Catinella and Luca Cortese, who were also co-authors of the study.

The survey used the MUSE Integral Field Spectrograph on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, located in northern Chile.

“We designed MAUVE to investigate how physical processes such as gas outflows help stop star formation in galaxies,” Professor Catinella said.

“NGC 4383 was our first target, as we suspected something very interesting was happening, but the data exceeded all our expectations.

“We hope that in the future, MAUVE observations reveal the importance of gas outflows in the local Universe with exquisite detail.”



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