2020 New Investigator Grant
Marc Miskin, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, University of Pennsylvania
Exploring the physics of living systems with microscopic robots
Biology presents us with a complex interwoven technology that we don’t yet fully understand, making it hard to interpret what even single cells do, let alone find unifying principles. But what if it were possible to build simple systems, comparable in size and function to biological cells, where every aspect of their innerworkings is comprehensible? Could studying such machines allow us to articulate the mechanisms behind life in concrete, physical terms? By leveraging 50 years of innovation in microelectronics, our group has taken a major step towards this goal: we can build robots that integrate computation, sensing and locomotion and yet fit in a space 10 times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Here we propose studying these microscopic robots as a proxy for biology. Specifically, robots will be made to explore an environment by sensing chemical changes (i.e. chemotaxis) and we will monitor every aspect of how they do it. Thanks to their size, our tiny robots are subject to the same environmental physics as biological microorganisms, allowing us to draw comparisons between the two. Yet, because we rationally construct every part of the robot, we will be able to explicitly measure what kinds of energy consumption, computation, sensing and feedback take place during an experiment. This new platform will give a clear and direct way to test hypothesis in biophysics, study information and thermodynamics at the microscale, and offers a new way to explore the physics of living systems.