Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Pennsylvania have managed to remotely stimulate lab-grown muscle tissue using light, potentially opening the door to a new wave of "bio-integrated" robots built from organic materials. Their work, which is set to appear in the journal Lab on a Chip, involved firing 20-millisecond laser pulses at skeletal muscle cells that had been genetically engineered to express a light-activated protein — the pulses caused muscle strips to contract individually, allowing complex movements to be orchestrated.

According to MIT News, there are a number of potential uses for the new robotic technology, including medical applications — the extreme compactness of organic muscle tissue when compared to similar synthetic materials could allow for more dexterous and flexible endoscopy tools. "We can put 10 degrees of freedom in a limited space, less than one millimeter," researcher Harry Asada tells the site. "There’s no actuator that can do that kind of job right now."

The news of the research follows a recent project by Harvard scientists to grow human tissue around a scaffolding of nanowires and transistors, creating a digital interface for organic flesh. Unlike with this latest effort, however, the researchers behind the project have not yet succeeded in controlling tissue remotely, focusing more on passive reception of data.