Mimicking natural processes to create artificial awesomeness, researchers at the University of Pittsburghhave designed medical “microcapsules” that can not only communicate, but move as a group.
Turns out that working at Pitt isn’t the pits – cutting-edge stuff is going on down there. A team of Pittsburgh engineers, working together in spite of their inherent social awkwardness, has created a blueprint for artificial cells that will allow them to emulate the behaviors of ants and certain types of slime molds, but without the need for all of the fancy biological innards.
Instead, these “biologically inspired” microcapsules release nanoparticles into their surrounding area and calling to other, similarly endowed particles. Once the “signaling” capsule has the attention of a “receiving” capsule, it can move away, leaving behind an ant-like trail of nanoparticles that the receiving capsule will gladly follow.
In order to communicate, the signaling capsule will release what are known as “agonists”, particles that will cause a receiving capsule to get their own emitters charged up and ready. Then, the receiver will fire off “antagonists” that will be picked up by the signaling cell and cause it to stop emitting.
Once the conversation dies down and the air is clear, the signaler will start up again, prompting ever-yet more delicate conversation from the receiver. The “length” of a conversation can be determined by the amount of nanoparticles in each capsule.
The Pitt team also demonstrated through computer modeling how the “following” procedure works. As the receiver spews out nanoparticles of microbial dialogue, these same particles cause the area under the capsule to deform. The capsule then pushes outward against the surrounding medium, which pushes right back and drives the microcapsule forward. This allows receiver molecules to chase after signaling molecules, and different formations of followers to be achieved by adjusting the particle output of the signaling capsule or using multiple signalers.
Pitt U hopes to use this design to create functional medical microcapsules which would be capable of infiltrating a cell and then dropping off needed antibiotics or tiny robots that could make the $6000 man go up in value by three digits, all zeros.
The next challenge for the team is to control which capsules are picked up and dropped off first so as to accurately target their cargo delivery, rather than dumping it all in one place.
The six-million dollar man would be fairly useless with only one giant, muscular leg.