It is worth keeping an eye on progress towards the creation of artificial cells and cell-like structures, as they are potentially useful in a very broad range of biotechnologies relevant to longevity science, regenerative medicine, and so forth. The first swarms of medical microrobots will quite likely be modified cells or artificial cells, packed with specific forms of molecular machinery to achieve some sort of effect in the body - such as manufacturing signaling compounds in response to local conditions, so as to steer the activities of surrounding cells.
A custom-built programmable 3D printer can create materials with several of the properties of living tissues. The new type of material consists of thousands of connected water droplets, encapsulated within lipid films. Because droplet networks are entirely synthetic, have no genome and do not replicate, they avoid some of the problems associated with other approaches to creating artificial tissues - such as those that use stem cells. Each droplet is an aqueous compartment about 50 microns in diameter. Although this is around five times larger than living cells the researchers believe there is no reason why they could not be made smaller. The networks remain stable for weeks.
"We aren't trying to make materials that faithfully resemble tissues but rather structures that can carry out the functions of tissues. We've shown that it is possible to create networks of tens of thousands of connected droplets. The droplets can be printed with protein pores to form pathways through the network that mimic nerves and are able to transmit electrical signals from one side of a network to the other."