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Using optogenetics to control movement of a nematode

A team of researchers from the University of Toronto and Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, has developed a technique for controlling the movements of a live nematode using laser light. In their paper published in the journal Science Robotics, the group describes their technique. Adriana San-Miguel with North Carolina State University has published a Focus piece in the same journal issue outlining the work done by the team.

In this new effort, the researchers looked to the nematode for inspiration. They note that prior efforts to control tiny robots have very often involved combining electronics with small creatures such as cockroaches, controlling them via external stimuli, such as small charges of electricity. In this new effort, the researchers sought to gain better control of a creature using a different approach.

It involved genetically engineering several nematode specimens so that the muscles they used for locomotion would activate when exposed to light. They then injected a drug into the worms to paralyze them. Next, they placed them on an agar substrate beneath a triple-beam laser outfitted with a microscope and camera.

The researchers demonstrated the control of the nematode by moving it through a small maze. They note that the key to properly directing their cyborg worm was to first study how the worm used muscles during locomotion and then to mimic those actions. They next plan to replicate their efforts using portable equipment to make their robotic worm usable in real-world applications.

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