As a kid, physicist Seth Fraden loved the movie "Fantastic Voyage," about a microscopic submarine traveling through a human bloodstream. Almost 10 years ago, Fraden began a quest to create a robotic eel he could send on a similar journey, though it wouldn't be for entertainment. The eel would be designed to deliver a drug to cells or genes. And to capture the flexibility of the real sea creature, it would take the form of a gel that could glide through water.
This spring, Fraden announced he'd achieved the first couple of steps toward realizing his vision. In the journal Lab on a Chip, he reported he and his team had created a model using chemicals and microscopic containers of a network of neurons. It's this network that is primarily responsible for the eel's trademark zigzag swimming motion.
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Fraden next plans to embed his neural network in a gel. If everything goes as planned, the gel will actually move the same way an eel does while swimming.
Why an eel?
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The robotic eel is part of a larger effort by Fraden to build machines made from chemicals and other synthetic materials that behave like living organisms. "Animating inanimate matter" is how he describes it. He's not bringing inorganic matter to life. He's building devices that act a lot like aspects and features of living creatures—clothing that mends itself using the same process our cells use to close a wound, for example, or nanobots that swim like fish through water pipes, carrying materials to repair pipe damage. Fraden's artificial neural network is just the beginning.
Compared with most sea creatures, the eel has a relatively simple system for swimming. Its spine runs the length of its body and is surrounded on either side by a column of neurons. When neurons fire sequentially down one of the...
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