Virginia Tech Scientist Develops Model for Robots with Bacterial Brains

Virginia Tech Scientist Develops Model for Robots with Bacterial Brains

By using a mathematical model, Virginia Tech Scientists demonstrated that bacteria can control the behavior of an inanimate device like a robot.



Two Virginia Tech scientists have developedmodels for Robots with brains that are controlled by bacteria. The details of the study was published in the July 16 edition of Scientific Reports, which is part of the Nature Publishing Group.

The basic aim of scientists is to learn how bacteria controls a human brain and also to build real robots that can run on brain which is made up of bacteria.

Ruder, an assistant professor of biological systems engineering, in both, the College of Agriculture and Life sciences and the College of Engineering said: “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.”

He added: “We found that robots may indeed be able to have a working brain.”

It is a fact that 90% of human body is made up of microbes which are an essential part of a normal human physiology. These microbes help humans to breakdown the food in the digestive tract helping humans to ingest the nutrients.

Scientists feel that some of the microbes also are responsible in controlling the human actions and personality, further these microbes could be possible the cause of certain mental disorders.

Surprisingly, it seems bacteria which helps in digestion of the food interacts with the human brain through neuron known as ‘vagus nerve’ and this is the main culprit for the late night cravings of food, which is nothing but urge for food by the bacteria which are present in the gut. Thus bacteria can really make humans do things as per their need!

Researchers are trying to figure out the role of the microbes in causing autism, schizophrenia and other brain disorders.

This is where the robot run by bacterial brain comes into picture and could prove to be one of the best ways to study the actual effect of bacteria on the behavioral aspect of any organism. Scientists feel that instead of creating an artificial organism and then placing it in a controlled environment, it is better to use these bacteria-robots.

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Till now, the Virginia Tech scientists have managed to do this in a computer simulation; however very soon they are planning to build real robots which would have the ability to read the bacterial gene expression levels in E.coli using miniature fluorescent microscopes. These real robots will then respond to the engineered bacteria that Ruder will create in his lab study.

Basically, the scientists are trying to understand the biochemical sensing capabilities of the organisms so as to use it in the fields of ecology, biology and robotics.

In case of agriculture, these models of robots with bacterial brains could be used to explore the biochemical interactions occurring between the soil bacteria and livestock.

In the field of healthcare, these models could help scientists understand to what extent bacteria can control the human physiology.  This understanding could further also lead to create bacteria based prescriptions to treat some of the severe physical illnesses and even mental disorders.

Ruder envisages of deploying the robots running on bacterial brains in the remediation of oil spills as well.

Previously experiments have been carried out using bacteria, for instance the mating behavior of fruit flies which was manipulated by using bacteria, in another instance when mice were implanted with pro-biotics, they showed lower levels of stress. Virginia Tech scientists took inspirations from these real world experiments for creating the mathematical models of robots that run on bacterial brain.

In his model, Ruder coupled and computationally simulated the mathematical equations which described the three elements that is, engineered gene circuits in E. coli, microfluid bioreactors, and robot movement. Thus, Ruder highlighted the unique decision making behavior of the robot with bacterial brain.

During the mathematical experiment, depending upon what they ate, the bacteria would turn green or red thus displaying their ‘Genetic regulatory circuits’ or the ‘transcriptional regulatory circuits’. The bacteria-robot model was equipped with sensors and a miniature microscope with with it would measure the color of the bacteria which would in turn guide the robotic model in regards to the direction it needs to travel and at what speed based on the color and its intensity.

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During the experiment, the robot which was placed in a virtual environment started hunting for lactose and other nutrients. The robot was being directed by the bacteria towards more food and it was seen that the robot paused and immediately “pounced” upon the food. This indicated that the robot was behaving like an animal and not a robot! The worst thing was its behavior resembled to that of a ‘predator’ rather than a normal animal.

Ruder’s mathematical experiment proves that such kind of bio-synthetic studies can be carried out with minimal amount of funds, thus it is good news for all future endeavors.

The mathematical modeling of Genetic regulatory circuits of E.coli has received funds from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Further, the study has also been provided funds by the Virginia Tech Student Engineers’ Council to develop these models and then get them into the classroom as actual teaching tools.

In his research study, Ruder was helped by Keith Heyde, a biomedical engineering doctoral student and also a student of phyto-engineering for biofuel synthesis.

Ruder thus said: “We hope to help democratize the field of synthetic biology for students and researchers all over the world with this model. In the future, rudimentary robots and E. colithat 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.”

The entire purpose of the study was mainly to understand the impact of bacteria on mental illness and in turn create a bacterial medicine to combat these disorders either by killing the bacteria that is causing the trouble or by replacing the missing bacteria which in turn was responsible for the disorder. Anyways, the bacteria would be used to help humans stay healthy.

Interestingly when the entire world is worried about Artificial Intelligence controlling humans, this study is much more scary because it proves that these tiny ubiquitous microorganisms have the potential to control the AIs.

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