Solar Panels for Cells

New research in the journal Nature Aging takes a page from the field of renewable energy and shows that genetically engineered mitochondria can convert light energy into chemical energy that cells can use, ultimately extending the life of the roundworm C. elegans.  While the prospect of sunlight-charged cells in humans is more science fiction than science, the findings shed light on important mechanisms in the aging process.

Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) has been the source of major discoveries in molecular and cell biology

We know that mitochondrial dysfunction is a consequence of aging,” said Andrew Wojtovich, Ph.D., associate professor of Pharmacology & Physiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center and senior author of the study.  “This study found that simply boosting metabolism using light-powered mitochondria gave laboratory worms longer, healthier lives.  These findings and new research tools will enable us to further study mitochondria and identify new ways to treat age-related diseases and age healthier.”

Mitochondria are organelles found in most cells in the body.  Often referred to as cellular power plants, mitochondria use glucose to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the compound that provides energy for key functions in the cell, such as muscle contraction and the electrical impulses that help nerve cells communicate with each other.

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How To Make Robots More Effective On The Future Battlefield

In an effort to make robots more effective and versatile teammates for Soldiers in combat, Army researchers are on a mission to understand the value of the molecular living functionality of muscle, and the fundamental mechanics that would need to be replicated in order to artificially achieve the capabilities arising from the proteins responsible for muscle contraction.

Bionanomotors, like myosins that move along actin networks, are responsible for most methods of motion in all life forms. Thus, the development of artificial nanomotors could be game-changing in the field of robotics research.

Researchers from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command‘s Army Research Laboratory ‘(CCDC ARL) have been looking to identify a design that would allow the artificial nanomotor to take advantage of Brownian motion, the property of particles to agitatedly move simply because they are warm.

The CCDC ARL researchers believe understanding and developing these fundamental mechanics are a necessary foundational step toward making informed decisions on the viability of new directions in robotics involving the blending of synthetic biology, robotics, and dynamics and controls engineering.

Army researchers are on a mission to understand the value of the molecular ‘living’ functionality of muscle, and the fundamental mechanics that would need to be replicated in order to artificially achieve the capabilities arising from the proteins responsible for muscle contraction

By controlling the stiffness of different geometrical features of a simple lever-arm design, we found that we could use Brownian motion to make the nanomotor more capable of reaching desirable positions for creating linear motion,” said Dean Culver, a researcher in CCDC ARL’s Vehicle Technology Directorate. “This nano-scale feature translates to more energetically efficient actuation at a macro scale, meaning robots that can do more for the warfighter over a longer amount of time.”

These widely accepted muscle contraction models are akin to a black-box understanding of a car engine,” Culver explained. “More gas, more power. It weighs this much and takes up this much space. Combustion is involved. But, you can’t design a car engine with that kind of surface-level information. You need to understand how the pistons work, and how finely injection needs to be tuned. That’s a component-level understanding of the engine. We dive into the component-level mechanics of the built-up protein system and show the design and control value of living functionality as well as a clearer understanding of design parameters that would be key to synthetically reproducing such living functionality.”

Culver stated that the capacity for Brownian motion to kick a tethered particle from a disadvantageous elastic position to an advantageous one, in terms of energy production for a molecular motor, has been illustrated by ARL at a component level, a crucial step in the design of artificial nanomotors that offer the same performance capabilities as biological ones.

This research adds a key piece of the puzzle for fast, versatile robots that can perform autonomous tactical maneuver and reconnaissance functions,” Culver said. “These models will be integral to the design of distributed actuators that are silent, low thermal signature and efficient – features that will make these robots more impactful in the field.”

Culver noted that they are silent because the muscles don’t make a lot of noise when they actuate, especially compared to motors or servos, cold because the amount of heat generation in a muscle is far less than a comparable motor, and efficient because of the advantages of the distributed chemical energy model and potential escape via Brownian motion.

According to Culver, the breadth of applications for actuators inspired by the biomolecular machines in animal muscles is still unknown, but many of the existing application spaces have clear Army applications such as bio-inspired robotics, nanomachines and energy harvesting.

 

The Journal of Biomechanical Engineering recently featured their research.

Source: https://www.arl.army.mil/