A team of researchers just developed an amoeba-like micro robot that is activated by DNA and has the potential to be used as artificial white blood cells.

Although the micro-bot is not yet able to travel through your veins like that time the Magic School Bus went inside Ralphie, the amoeba bot is able to use different proteins and molecular signaling to change its shape on command and shuffle around. The team of researchers, led by Yusuke Sato from Tohoku University and the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, published their results in Science Robotics in early March.

Adding specific mechanisms for directional movement and other microtechnology to the amoeba bot turns it from a cool little robot into a powerful futuristic health tool. Or maybe it just becomes the mechanism to deploy Elon Musk’s neural lace. In the paper, the researchers write, “These implementations could allow for the development of molecular robots capable of chemotaxis, such as white blood cells, and beyond.”

The amoeba bot in its inactive and active states.
The amoeba bot in its inactive and active states.

The micrometer-sized robots are made by placing tiny microtubules made of proteins that form cellular skeletons and motor proteins inside a lipid membrane about a micrometer in diameter. The motor proteins, called kinesins, are able to attach or detach from the membrane based on a series of UV light-responsive DNA signals that the researchers call the “clutch.” When the motor proteins are prevented from attaching to the edge of the membrane, the amoeba robot is a sphere and doesn’t move. When the motor proteins are able to attach, the robot is able to change its shape as the kinesins move the skeleton proteins along the inside of the membrane like the trends on a tank.

One of the coolest things about the amoeba bots is that the structure is an empty sac aside from the movement proteins. This would allow the bots to carry medication, nano-cameras, or specific proteins through the body. And because the behavior of the robot is altered by DNA, it suggests a system treatment that activates based on specific molecular triggers.

There are still a number of things that the amoeba-bots can’t do, including reversing their behavior once they’ve been activated or deactivated, and locomotion is still too complicated for the micro bots. The next step is to fine-tune both the movement behavior and to allow the robots to create specific shapes. And while there are implications for targeted medicine, it will still be awhile before these amoebas could be used in that way. But having tiny robots moving through your bloodstream to help defend your body from disease is no longer just a Fantastic Voyage — it’s getting ready to come to a body near you.

Photos via Yusuke Sato et al.