Bionic ear springs from 3-D printer, cow cells

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PRINCETON, N.J. -- With a 3-D printer, a petri dish and some cells from a cow, Princeton University researchers are growing synthetic ears that can receive -- and transmit -- sound.

The scientists send bovine cells mixed in a liquid gel through the printer, followed by tiny particles of silver. The printer is programmed to shape the material into a "bionic ear," and forms the silver particles into a coiled antenna that can pick up radio signals that the ear will interpret as sound.

The 3-D ear is not designed to replace a human one, though; the study is meant to explore a method of combining electronics with biological material.

"What we really did here was actually more of a proof of concept of the capabilities of 3-D printing," said Michael McAlpine, the professor who led the project. "Because most people use 3-D printing to print passive objects -- things like figurines and jewelry."

After it's printed, the 3-D ear is soft and translucent. It is cultivated for 10 weeks, letting the cells multiply, creating a flesh color and forming hardened tissue around the antenna.

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McAlpine and his team demonstrated the antenna's ability to pick up radio signals by attaching electrodes onto the backs of the ears in the printing process.

When they broadcast a recording of Beethoven's "Für Elise" to a pair of fully cultivated ears, the electrodes transmitted the signal along wires to a set of speakers, and the music flowed out clearly.

McAlpine said the research could lead to synthetic replacements for actual human functions, and to a sort of electronic sixth sense.

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