Cornell creates the world’s tiniest self-folding origami bird

The bird demonstrates cutting-edge technology for devising self-folding nanoscale robots.

Cornell creates the world’s tiniest self-folding origami bird
Credit: Cornell University
  • Scientists at Cornell University have developed a self-folding origami bird that's just 60 microns wide.
  • The bird is just one of many tiny robots roaming Cornell's labs.
  • One day, microscopic robots will be able to autonomously form themselves and get to work in all sort of itty-bitty spaces.

    • Cornell University has just announced what may be the smallest origami bird ever folded. While a typical origami animal is the product of an artist's dexterous hands, the Cornell bird was folded by the strategic application of small electrical voltages. It had to be: The material of which the bird is comprised is just 30 atoms thick.

      Creative expression isn't the point of the university's little avian — its construction previews principles and techniques that will lead to new generations of moving, nano-scaled robots that "can enable smart material design and interaction with the molecular biological world," says Dean Culver of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command's Army Research Laboratory, which supported the research.

      According to Cornell's Paul McEuen, "We humans, our defining characteristic is we've learned how to build complex systems and machines at human scales, and at enormous scales as well. But what we haven't learned how to do is build machines at tiny scales. And this is a step in that basic, fundamental evolution in what humans can do, of learning how to construct machines that are as small as cells."

      The lead author of the paper describing the tiny bird is postdoctoral researcher Qingkun Liu. The paper, "Micrometer-Sized Electrically Programmable Shape Memory Actuators for Low-Power Microrobotics," is the cover story of the March 17 issue of the journal Science Robotics.

      A minuscule swarm of helpers

      The project is the result of a collaboration between physical scientist McEeuen and physicist Itai Cohen, both of Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences. It's already resulted in a (very) small herd of nanoscale machines and devices.

      Cohen explains, "We want to have robots that are microscopic but have brains on board. So that means you need to have appendages that are driven by complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) transistors, basically a computer chip on a robot that's 100 microns on a side."

      The idea is that these minuscule workhorses—a metaphor, no nanoscale origami horses yet exist—are released from a wafer, fold themselves into the desired form factor, and then go on about their business. Additional folding would endow them with motion as they work, change shapes to move their limbs and manipulate microscopic objects. The researchers anticipate that these nanobots will eventually be able to achieve similar functionality to their larger brethren.

      Credit: nobeastsofierce/Adobe Stock

      How a tiny robot is made and works

      The project combines materials science with chemistry, since the folding is achieved with the strategic deployment of electrochemical reactions. Liu explains, "At this small scale, it's not like traditional mechanical engineering, but rather chemistry, material science, and mechanical engineering all mixed together."

      "The hard part," says Cohen, "is making the materials that respond to the CMOS circuits. And this is what Qingkun and his colleagues have done with this shape memory actuator that you can drive with voltage and make it hold a bent shape."

      The bots are constructed from a nanometer-thick platinum layer that's coated with a titanium oxide film. Rigid panels of silicon oxide glass are affixed to the platinum. A positive voltage creates oxidation, forcing oxygen atoms into the platinum seams between the glass panels, and forcing platinum atoms out. This causes the platinum to expand, which bends the entire glass-platinum structure to a desired angle.

      Because the oxygen atoms collect to form a barrier, a bend is retained even after the charge is switched off. To undo a fold, a negative charge can be applied that removes the oxygen atoms from the seam, allowing it to relax and unbend.

      This all happens very quickly — a machine can fold itself within just 100 milliseconds. The process is also repeatable. The team reports that a bot can flatten and refold itself thousands of times, and all it takes is a single volt of electricity.

      Artistry after all

      None of this really removes what one might consider the artistry. Working out how and where to apply voltages to effect the desired shape is not a simple thing to do. McEuen says, "One thing that's quite remarkable is that these little tiny layers are only about 30 atoms thick, compared to a sheet of paper, which might be 100,000 atoms thick. So it's an enormous engineering challenge to figure out how to make something like that have the kind of functionalities we want."

      Still, the group is getting quite good at microscopic robotics, and has already been awarded the Guinness World Record for assembling the smallest-ever walking robot. The little 4-legged dude is 40 microns wide and between 40 and 70 microns long. They're angling for a new record with their 60-micron-wide origami bird.

      Says Cohen, "These are major advances over current state-of-the-art devices. We're really in a class of our own."

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      It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

      Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
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      This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

      For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

      The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

      The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

      One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

      Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

      Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

      Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

      A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

      We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.


      "This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

      "While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

      What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

      The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

      A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

      This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.


      If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

      Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

      "This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."