Steerable, Motorized Cyborg Spermbots Take on Infertility

Tiny, magnetically-driven power suits for individual sperm cells turn them into steerable cyborg spermbots

2 min read
Steerable, Motorized Cyborg Spermbots Take on Infertility
Image: IFW Dresden

Traditionally, human procreation is all about accuracy through volume. Fire enough sperm at an egg (200-500 million is about average for a single, um, event), and if you’re lucky, a few of them (maybe a hundred or so) will eventually figure out the right thing to do, and one of those might end up leading to a successful fertilization. These are horrible odds, and it’s vaguely amazing that we manage to keep on making more of ourselves at all.

One futuristic approach (which has already been adopted by some of the more primitive insects) is to do away with the hundreds of millions of sperm, and rely on just one to get the job done. If you’re going to do that, your one sperm needs to be incredibly awesome, and thanks to science, it can be. Researchers from the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences at IFW Dresden in Germany have successfully tested tiny, magnetically-driven power suits for individual sperm that can turn them into steerable cyborg “spermbots” that can be remote controlled all the way to the egg.

To be slightly more serious about things, spermbots are intended to help deal with one of the primary causes of infertility: sperm that for whatever reason have poor mobility, but are otherwise perfectly healthy. Techniques like artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization can help, but they tend to be expensive and not very reliable, since there’s a chance for failure at many points during the multiple-step process. The fundamental problem that needs to be solved is this: how do you get one single healthy sperm to fertilize an egg? The IFW Dresden researchers came up with what has to be the simplest and most straightforward approach, which is to give the sperm and motor and just drive it there yourself:

The motors are metal-coated polymer microhelices that are sized such that they’ll fit over the tail of an individual sperm. A rotating magnetic field causes them to spin, propelling them (and whatever sperm they’re attached to) forward. Adjusting the orientation of the field can steer the spermbots in 3D, and all of this stuff can be done inside of an MRI machine, although the video (and testing so far) has been in the equivalent to a Petri dish. Once the (presumably now very very dizzy) sperm reaches the egg, the micromotor can even plow them into it, making the fertilization process as easy as possible.

There are still plenty of challenges here, but the researchers are confident that this is a useful step in the right direction. My suggestion would be to equip the robosperm with tiny little laser cannons just in case any other sperm get in its way. Pew pew!

[ Paper ] via [ ACS ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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