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Tiny Machine Commands a Swarm of Bacteria

The bacteria propel the machine in different directions.

Researchers in Canada have created a solar-powered micro-machine that is no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. The tiny machine can carry out basic sensing tasks and can indirectly control the movement of a swarm of bacteria in the same Petri dish.

Sylvain Martel, Director of the NanoRobotics Laboratory at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, previously showed a way to control bacteria attached to microbeads using an MRI machine. His new micro-machine, which measure 300x300 microns and carry tiny solar panels, will be presented this week at ICRA ‘09 in Japan.

On such a small device there is little room for batteries, sensors or transmitters. So the solar cell on top delivers power, sending an electric current to both a sensor and a communication circuit. The communication component sends tiny electromagnetic pulses that are detected by an external computer.

The sensor meanwhile detects surrounding pH levels–the higher the pH concentration, the faster the electromagnetic pulses emitted by the micro-machine. The external computer uses these signals to direct a swarm of about 3,000 magnetically-sensitive bacteria, which push the micro-machine around as it pulses. The bacteria push the micro-machine closer to the higher pH concentrations and change its direction if it pulses too slowly. This is more practical than trying to attach the bacteria onto the micro-machines, says Martel, since the bacteria only have a lifespan of a few hours. “It’s like having a propulsion engine on demand,” he says.

Martel suggests that micro-machines could one day be used for medical purposes although there’s still a long way to go.

The video below shows 3,000 bacteria maneuvering a V-shaped robot around via computer control.

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