Robot brain could soon have bacteria controlling its movements

16 Jul 2015

It might seem like the plot to a mad science-fiction film, but researchers have shown early evidence that bacteria grown through synthetic biology (synbio) can be used as the brain of a robot, controlling its movements.

Designed by Virginia Tech professor Waren Ruder, this biome of engineered bacteria uses a mathematical model that appears to show that bacteria can be made to do whatever its creator wants, which when placed in a robot can make it move without human control.

According to the university, Ruder plans for future experiments that will build real-world robots that will have the ability to read bacterial gene expression levels in E. coli using miniature fluorescent microscopes.

These robots will then be able to respond to bacteria he will engineer in his lab, which, if truly successful, could have far-reaching implications in some of science’s biggest fields, including ecology, biology and robotics.

In humans, the discourse regarding the power of bacteria over the regulation of our bodies grows louder, with suggestions that it can regulate our health and mood, and can even affect our behaviour.

Bacteria made robot ‘stalk prey’

During Ruder’s experiment, the bacteria biome placed in a wheeled robot was found in one instance to direct the robot toward more food.

Before making its final approach to the food, the robot paused before quickly going for it — a classic predatory behaviour of higher order animals that stalk prey.

Most importantly, this development in ecology and robotics demonstrates that these sorts of biosynthetic experiments could be done in the future with a minimal amount of funds, opening up the field to a much larger pool of researchers.

“We hope to help democratise 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 the PhD level about bacterial relationships with other organisms.”

Ruder has now published his findings online in Nature  with the hope of spurring on more developments in the hope of creating a true, living robot brain.

Electric bacteria image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic