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Bacteria-Controlled Robot Brain in Development

Waren Ruder used a mathematical model to demonstrate that bacteria can control the behavior of an inanimate device like a robot. (Photo credit: Virginia Tech.)
Waren Ruder used a mathematical model to demonstrate that bacteria can control the behavior of an inanimate device like a robot. (Photo credit: Virginia Tech.)

Virginia Tech scientists are working on a robotic system that may one day be controlled by living bacteria. Currently, the researchers are using a mathematical model based on the behavior of bacteria to control the robot.

“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 Waren Ruder, an assistant professor of biological systems engineering in both the College of Agriculture and Life sciences and the College of Engineering. “We found that robots may indeed be able to have a working brain.”

Ruder’s ultimate goal is to integrate the decision making skills of living colonies of bacteria using a microfluidic interface. Such devices typically consists of very tiny pumps, valves  that move small amounts of liquid around a chip. Ruder’s robots, specifically, will be designed to read bacterial gene expression levels in E. coli using miniature fluorescent microscopes. The work is detailed in a paper published July 16 in Nature‘s Scientific Reports.

Ruder says the research was inspired by real-world experiments where the mating behavior of fruit flies was manipulated using bacteria, as well a study that found mice exhibited signs of lower stress when implanted with probiotics.

In Ruder’s mathematical experiment, the theoretical robot detected color changes in the bacteria, based on what they ate. The robot decided how fast to go depending upon the pigment and intensity of color. During one experiment, the robot paused before quickly making its final approach — a classic predatory behavior of higher order animals that stalk prey. To Ruder, this indicates a higher level of thinking than they’d originally anticipated.

“We hope to help democratize the field of synthetic biology for students and researchers all over the world with this model,” said Ruder. “In the future, rudimentary robots and E. coli that are already commonly used separately in classrooms could be linked with this model to teach students from elementary school through Ph.D.-level about bacterial relationships with other organisms.”

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