Scientists have grown living human skin around a robotic finger

The Terminator is perhaps a little closer to reality.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo have built a robotic finger that, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s titular cyborg assassin, is covered in living human skin. The goal is to one day build robots that look like real people, but for more altruistic applications.

Super-realistic-looking robots could interact more seamlessly with humans in healthcare and service industries, biohybrid engineer Shoji Takeuchi and colleagues say June 9 in Question. (Whether masked cyborgs in living tissue would be more likable or scary is probably in the eye of the beholder.)

To cover the finger in skin, Takeuchi and his colleagues immersed the robotic finger in a mixture of collagen and human skin cells called dermal fibroblasts. The mixture settled into a base layer of skin, or dermis, covering the finger. The team then poured a liquid containing human keratinocyte cells onto the finger, which formed an outer layer of skin, or epidermis. After two weeks, the skin covering the finger was a few millimeters thick, comparable to the thickness of human skin.

The lab-made skin was strong and stretchy enough to withstand robotic finger flexing. It could also heal itself: When the researchers made a small cut on the robotic finger and covered it with a collagen bandage, the fibroblast cells in the skin fused the bandage with the rest of the skin into one week.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo covered this robotic finger in living human skin to pave the way for ultra-realistic cyborgs.

“It’s very interesting work and an important advance in the field,” says Ritu Raman, an MIT engineer who also builds machines with living components. “Biological materials are attractive because they can dynamically sense and adapt to their environment.” For example, she would like to see a future version of living robot skin encrusted with nerve cells to make robots more aware of their surroundings.

But a robot can’t wear that suit of lab-grown skin yet, Raman notes. The skin-covered robotic finger spent most of its time soaking in sugar, amino acids and other ingredients that skin cells need to survive. A Terminator or other cyborg wearing this skin should bathe in nutrient broth often or use another complex skincare routine.

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