Skeletal muscle is a scalable actuator system used throughout nature from the millimeter to meter length scales and over a wide range of frequencies and force regimes. This adaptability has spurred interest in using engineered skeletal muscle to power soft robotics devices and in biotechnology and medical applications. However, the challenges to doing this are similar to those facing the tissue engineering and regenerative medicine fields; specifically, how do we translate our understanding of myogenesis in vivo to the engineering of muscle constructs in vitro to achieve functional integration with devices. To do this researchers are developing a number of ways to engineer the cellular microenvironment to guide skeletal muscle tissue formation. This includes understanding the role of substrate stiffness and the mechanical environment, engineering the spatial organization of biochemical and physical cues to guide muscle alignment, and developing bioreactors for mechanical and electrical conditioning. Examples of engineered skeletal muscle that can potentially be used in soft robotics include 2D cantilever-based skeletal muscle actuators and 3D skeletal muscle tissues engineered using scaffolds or directed self-organization. Integration into devices has led to basic muscle-powered devices such as grippers and pumps as well as more sophisticated muscle-powered soft robots that walk and swim. Looking forward, current, and future challenges include identifying the best source of muscle precursor cells to expand and differentiate into myotubes, replacing cardiomyocytes with skeletal muscle tissue as the bio-actuator of choice for soft robots, and vascularization and innervation to enable control and nourishment of larger muscle tissue constructs.
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Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.