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Center for Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems

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NSF Science and Technology Center: Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems  (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Research Focus and Anticipated Benefits

Imagine clusters of living cells that behave like machines, doing many jobs that today’s standard mechanical devices cannot perform, or doing them better.

For example, picture a collection of neurons that signal when a plant needs water. Or an organ that senses when someone’s blood pressure is too high, then dispenses a drug to lower it. Or a sensor that crawls into a tiny space and detects a toxin in the water supply, or a hidden explosive.

Science fiction fantasy? Not necessarily.

The Center for Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS), based at MIT, seeks to understand cells and their environment, and how these cells work together to incorporate biochemical and mechanical cues to perform a wide variety of functions. The centers approach for constructing biological machines is similar to the engineering techniques employed in making non-biological machines. Many Center staff members are engineers, and they think like engineers, building machines up from individual parts.

The research could have dramatic applications in industry, medicine, energy and the environment, among others. Biological robots in an assembly line, for example, could repair themselves and adapt to optimize their performance; new organs” could be designed and implanted, with the ability to sense drug or glucose levels in the bloodstream, and respond appropriately by turning on or off drug secretion; organisms could swim to an oil spill, and consume the damaging substance, replicate if needed, then swim home to the host ship for processing; smart plant-based machines could release the correct amount of controlled energy to produce heat, light or mechanical work.

Creating living systems with important new roles raises ethical issues that center scientists work to address. Will these machines be endowed with the capability to self-repair, adapt, and self-replicate?” says Center director Roger Kamm. “If so, they become indistinguishable from natural organisms and need to be considered in a similar light. If stem cells are used, from what source may they be taken? What protections and regulations need to be in place? These and many other questions will be openly debated within the center, and with the larger community as we develop these advancing technologies.’’

Center projects are focused on developing machine components and enabling technologies—i.e., methods that will allow the assembly of machines. The scientists also are developing two cellular machines. One of them will be able to sense glucose in the bloodstream and dispense insulin as needed. Another is a millimeter-scale biological machine made from polymers and living cells, possibly cardiac or skeletal muscle cells that can identify a chemical toxin, move toward it, and release chemicals to neutralize it. Still another project will release machines that can inspect produce, searching for pathogens, and signal whether they have found any.

Center researchers long-term goal is to explore ways to construct robotics from cells. What would be the advantage of a biological robotic arm? It could remodel itself if its task changes, so it can perform the task better, and can repair itself,” Kamm says. “If I wanted to become a professional tennis player, for example, and I started to train and work out, my arm would remodel itself and perform the task better over time. Thats the idea.

While the obstacles are still considerable, biological machines may be closer than most people believe. Our hope is to create several simple biological machines within the next five years,” Kamm said in 2012.

Education & Outreach

The Center, founded in 2010, has several education objectives, including:

  • developing an integrated graduate course that merges the essential sciences & technologies needed to advance this new field

  • establishing a graduate teaching consortium to offer a selection of synchronous & asynchronous courses

  • nurturing students’ leadership abilities by forming a student council

  • enriching students’ international experiences via internships with international collaborators

  • recruiting women and underrepresented minorities to participate in the EBICS summer Research Experience for Undergraduates program 

  • participating in student career development workshops and mentoring programs 

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  • A conceptual rendering of a biological machine
A conceptual rendering of a biological machine showing circuitry on a biological material background