It sounds like a plot for a B-Grade sci-fi horror movie but scientists at the University of Illinois are in the process of building microscopic robots that use whip-like tails known as flagella to “swim” to specifically targeted areas of the human body. What could possibly go wrong?
Powered by heart cells these tiny robotic sperm machines could be used for applications such as delivering medications or attacking specific cells.
The body of each spermbot is made up of a head joined to a tail, which together measure just a little under 2 mm in length. They’re made of an inert flexible polymer called polydimethylsiloxane, which is a type of silicone. Covering the head and the top part of the tail is a coating of fibronectin, a protein that makes up much of the extracellular matrix, and that aids in cell adhesion.
When heart cells are placed on the head/tail junction, they bind with the fibronectin, and align themselves relative to one another. They also synchronize their expansions and contractions, so they pulse in unison. That synchronized pulsing causes the tail to whip back and forth, driving the bio-bot forward through a liquid medium.
The spermbots can be magnetically controlled to move in a desired direction or given light or chemical cues until they reach their desired destination and complete their job. They’re even robust enough to guide a specific sperm cell to an egg cell.
As you may have guessed there is hope that further development will allow the technology to offer a viable alternative to parents trying to have a child through in-vitro fertilization. When perfected, the spermbots could also be used as a safe means for drug delivery or gene manipulation. Beware, our spermbot overlords are coming……(too much??)