The accompanying video in this New Scientist piece has to be one of the most incredible, exciting and sci-fi things I’ve seen in my entire life. Basically, scientists (a team at Harvard) have coated thin sheets of polymer with muscle cells, they grow together, and then the (evil, mean) scientists shock the paper-thin material with electricity, causing predictable contractions. They’ve *made a paper-thin muscle in a lab*. Think of the possibilities for robots, humans, architecture… The snip is extra dry, but you can just dig the spontaneous contraction videos here and here if you’re feeling impatient. Snip:
(…) The key to making the new muscular thin films work was to get the muscle cells to align with each other across several centimetres. To do this, they first prepared sheets of the polymer polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) by imprinting it with a precise pattern of stripes made of the protein fibronectin. They then took muscle tissue from rats’ hearts, broke the tissue down to individual cells, and seeded these cells onto the polymer.
Over about four days of incubation, the muscle cells attached themselves firmly to the fibronectin on the surface. On surfaces patterned with 20-micrometre-thick stripes of fibronectin, the cells grew along these paths and automatically organized themselves into muscle fibres.
“We were been able to do something that tissue engineers have been unable to do to date,” says Kevin Kit Parker, who led the Harvard research team. This self-organisation is an easy way to get the cells to align so they can make coordinated contractions, he says. “If you put down a pattern, you automatically build a tissue.”
To show what these muscular films are capable of the researchers made a host of different devices, some of them biologically inspired. They cut triangular sheets of the material, measuring about one centimetre long along the longest edge. When a current was applied, the triangle kicked its small end like fish’s tail and could even be made to swim slowly through water. (…)