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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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The Next Wave
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Fall 2004
The Next Wave
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Can such efforts create life artificially? “Life requires information, and information is very important, but it’s not the only thing,” says Liao. “We still need energy and materials — information can’t do everything.” The key to the science of the 21st century and beyond, in Liao’s view, is integrating information with biological functionality. “We’re entering a systems world where there are no hierarchies and it’s very difficult to say what controls what,” says Liao. “In this holistic world everything interacts and everything is limiting.”

Whatever the future might look like, it’s worth noting that integrative technology already has the ability to create lifelike materials and systems. Perhaps the best example of this is what occurred in the laboratory of Carlo Montemagno, professor and chair of the Department of Bioengineering, in the fall of 2000. Montemagno, a microengineer with a background in biology, created the world’s first robot propelled by muscle power.

He did this by attaching a cord of living cardiac tissue taken from a rat to the underside of an arched strip of silicon as wide as a human hair and no bigger than the zero in the numerals “2000” etched on a penny. Montemagno placed this delicate contraption in a carbon-dioxide incubator for about a week. The cardiac fibers were fuelled by a simple glucose solution, and their contraction and relaxation made the silicon arch bend and stretch, producing a crawling motion in the “microbot,” or more appropriately, “musclebot.”

Montemagno struggled for three years to create his musclebot, an appealing alternative to micromotors, which need electricity to function. NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts funded his project as part of a larger mission to develop futuristic technologies. Montemagno’s job was to create musclebots that interacted with one another, like ants, in the event of an emergency in space. The idea was that astronauts could create musclebots on the spot if, say, their spacecraft got damaged by micrometeorites.

“[The astronauts] would have a whole mass of skeletons — 100,000 of these microbots sitting in a small box, and a single vial of cells,” explains Montemagno, who will never forget the day when he and one of his student collaborators peered into an AFM microscope in their lab and found their musclebot crawling. “The microbots would be put in the cell culture, and they would live for three to seven days” — entirely on biological energy.

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