These U of T Researchers Use Tiny Microrobots to ‘Scoop Up,’ Transport and Deliver Cell Material

Post-doctoral researcher Shuailong Zhang and Professor Aaron Wheeler have designed microrobots – depicted on the screens behind them – that can be used in conjunction with optoelectronic tweezers to manipulate cell material (photo by Dan Haves)

Researchers from the University of Toronto have demonstrated a novel and non-invasive way to manipulate cells through microrobotics.

One method of cell manipulation – moving small particles from one place to another – is through optoelectronic tweezers (OET), which use light patterns to directly interact with the object of interest. But there are limitations to the force that can be applied and speed in which the cellular material can be manipulated.

Enter microrobotics. A team led by U of T post-doctoral researcher Shuailong Zhang and Professor Aaron Wheeler have designed microrobots (working at the sub-millimetre scale) that can be operated by OET for cell manipulation.

“The ability of these light-driven microrobots to perform non-invasive and accurate control, isolation and analysis of cells in complex biological environment make them a very powerful tool,” says Zhang.

Photo of microbot
An array of “cogwheel-shaped” optoelectronic microrobots (photo courtesy of Shuailong Zhang)

Instead of using light to directly interact with the cells, the light is used to steer cogwheel-shaped microrobots that can “scoop up” cell material, transport it and then deliver it. This manipulation can be done at greater speeds while causing less damage to the material compared to traditional OET methods.

The researchers detailed their work in a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.