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TR10: Biological Machines

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Stuck to the beetle’s back is a commercial radio receiver atop a ­custom-made circuit board. Six electrode stimulators snake from the circuit board into the insect’s optic lobes, brain, and left and right basilar flight muscles. A transmitter attached to a laptop running custom software sends messages to the receiver, delivering small electric pulses to the optic lobes to initiate flight and to the left or right flight muscle to trigger a turn. Because the receiver sends very high-level instructions to the beetle’s nervous system, it can simply signal the beginning and end of a flight, rather than sending continuous messages to keep the beetle flying.

Others have created interfaces that make it possible to remotely control the movements of rats and other animals. But insects are much smaller, and thus more challenging. Maharbiz is one of the few scientists with a sufficiently deep knowledge of both biology and engineering to successfully mesh an animal’s nervous system with MEMS technologies. His team previously modified ­beetles during the pupal stage, so that their implants are invisible in adulthood–a valuable property if they are to be used in covert missions. The researchers are now working on novel microstimulators and MEMS radio receivers that will allow for more precise neural targeting and even smaller systems.

The cyborg beetle is just one of an array of new technologies incubating in ­Maharbiz’s lab, including microflui­dic chips that can deliver controlled amounts of oxygen and other chemicals–even DNA–to individual cells. This kind of system could be used to precisely control the development of cell populations. Ultimately, Maharbiz wants to develop programmable cell-based materials, like those required for the fantastical self-healing table. For now, his team focuses on finding the best ways to manipulate devices such as the beetles. “We want to find out,” says Maharbiz, “what are the limits of control?”

See the 10 Emerging Technologies of 2009.

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