The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today (Thursday, Sept. 16) a $5 million, five-year grant to the University of California, Berkeley, that will fund an all-star team of biologists, engineers and mathematicians from universities across the country to try to understand the mechanical and neurological basis of locomotion. The grant is one of six totaling nearly $30 million through NSF's Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) program, which supports integrative research that addresses major questions in the biological sciences.
"The hallmark of life is movement," said Robert Full, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley and leader of the team. "Yet, no single systems-level model, reaching from neurons to muscles to the skeleton to the whole body, can explain the control that makes movement possible. You have so many nerves and so many muscles, how in the world do you actually move forward?"
Researchers from UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, Cornell University and Montana State University will focus on RHex, a short, six-legged robot that scampers like a cockroach, as a working model of the principles they're seeking to uncover. By tweaking the robot and using it as a physical model, they hope to tease apart the complex neural and muscular networks in insects.
At the same time, they will conduct biomechanical and neurological experiments on insects and develop mathematical models to improve the robot. This multi-pronged approach will allow them to uncover the neural and muscular control and feedback loops that lead to the remarkably similar patterns of whole-body motion in animals as diverse as crabs, cockroaches, lizards, dogs and humans.