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Developing bacterial robots for hazardous duty

Northeastern University biology professor Joseph Ayers is part of a team of scientists who have received a three-year, $600,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research to create a fleet of micro-robots designed to locate explosive compounds from hundreds of thousands of live mines that have been hidden underwater since World War I. 

“The primary need for robots is to do things that are either too boring or too dangerous for humans to do,” says Ayers, who directs the biomimetic underwater robot program at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Mass. “Mine hunting is the perfect example of that.”

Over the last seven years, the synthetic biologist has become famous for designing the RoboLobster and RoboLamprey — autonomous underwater robots that mimic the neurophysiology and behavior of their real-life counterparts.

Designing a fully autonomous robot — or system of smaller robots — is the ultimate goal of the research, says Ayers, who has also created a robotic eel that uses synapses and neurons rather than circuits and computer chips.

For his current project, Ayers will work with researchers at MIT, Boston University and Harvard Medical School to create micro-robots using bacteria that have been reprogrammed to detect explosive materials, such as C4 and TNT, that have seeped from underwater mines into streams, rivers and oceans around the world. 

RoboLobsters, Ayers says, would serve as “chaperones” for the mini mine-seekers, which will light up when they detect explosives. “It is an engineering approach to molecular biology,” he says. “What we’re doing is basically adding sensor or reporter genes to bacteria and giving that bacteria a limited computation ability.”

The micro-robots will be able to process information in a matter of milliseconds without relying on specific algorithms that may limit their movements.

“Animals never get stuck and can wiggle and squirm to get out of a tough spot,” Ayers says. “What we think animals are doing is increasing the chaos in their nervous system and getting themselves out of tight spots.”

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