In a Los Angeles laboratory, researchers have let loose scores of what amount to living micromachines. Dwarfed by a comma, each tiny device consists of an arch of gold coated along its inner surface with a sheath of cardiac muscle grown from rat cells. With each of the muscle bundles' automatic cycles of contraction and relaxation, the device takes a step.
Viewed under a microscope, "they move very fast," says bioengineer Jianzhong Xi of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). "The first time I saw that, it was kind of scary." Xi and his UCLA colleagues Jacob J. Schmidt and Carlo D. Montemagno describe their musclebots in the February Nature Materials.
Microcontraptions of this sort may someday make pinpoint deliveries of drugs to cells or shuttle minuscule components during the manufacture ofother itsy machines or structures, Xi says. Variations on the same design could lead to muscle-driven power supplies for microdevices or laboratory test beds for studying properties of muscle tissue. Because the musclebot is both minuscule and designed to operate in body fluids, "this is the Fantastic Voyage kind of thing" that might someday roam the bloodstream and carry out on-the-spot surgery or disease treatments, comments physicist James Castracane of the State University of New York in Albany.
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