3D-Printed Fish Eat Toxins in Polluted Water

October 13, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

3D-printed microfish
Photo credit: W. Zhu and J. Li, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

These robotic fish can clean up polluted rivers with few environmental side-effects. They also might revolutionize medicine.

Nanotechnology is the new black, and engineers at the University of California, San Diego may have just changed the game. Using innovative 3D-printing technology, the researchers created fish-shaped microbots that are wired to swim around and eat toxins. It’s likely that these microfish will inspire a new generation of “smart” microbots with the ability to clean up polluted waters and even rid our bodies of certain diseases.

In the study, published in the journal Advanced Materials, the researchers say that the fish are much smaller than a human hair — just 120 microns long and 30 microns thick. The tails of the fish are embedded with tiny particles of platinum which react with hydrogen peroxide, propelling them along. The researchers also designed the fish heads with magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles, allowing the fish to be steered with magnets.

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Hundreds of microfish can be printed in seconds. The design also isn’t limited to fish— the researchers could easily experiment with different designs to produce other organisms like birds, sharks, and manta rays. Imagine little flying microbirds that buzz around polluted areas eating contaminants in the air.

The design could also be manipulated by adding other particles to the fish before printing them —  for instance, chemicals that can detect and absorb toxins like bee venom. With the appropriate research, scientists could determine which particles are needed to “eat” a number of toxins — including those in your body.

The researchers are optimistic that the fish may one day be able to swim through bloodstreams, delivering drugs to targeted areas of the body as well as removing toxins. One day your doctor may give you a prescription for some “living” sharks to swallow twice a day.

In a press release, study author Wei Zhu, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, said, “With this method, we can easily integrate different functions inside these tiny robotic swimmers for a broad spectrum of applications.”

In the study, the researchers demonstrate that the fish glow fluorescent red as they function, allowing the scientists to monitor the detoxification process guided by the intensity of the red glow. Along with the wired swimming motions, the design ensures that the microfish won’t miss a drop of contaminant.

Right now, these fish are just a proof of concept, which means they won’t be employed outside of a lab for a long time. This gives researchers time to test out all possible outcomes before sending out chemical-eating nanofish into the wild — or our bodies.

Nonetheless, the concept is as intriguing as it is promising. There are so many large-scale pollution clean-up projects attempting to disinfect polluted waters and air in a number of different ways, but the solution may be smaller than we thought.

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