A complex and functional living cellular system requires the interaction of one or more cell types to perform specific tasks, such as sensing, processing, or force production. Modular and flexible platforms for fabrication of such multi-cellular modules and their characterization have been lacking. Here, we present a modular cellular system, made up of multi-layered tissue rings containing integrated skeletal muscle and motor neurons (MNs) embedded in an extracellular matrix. The MNs were differentiated from mouse embryonic stem cells through the formation of embryoid bodies (EBs), which are spherical aggregations of cells grown in a suspension culture. The EBs were integrated into a tissue ring with skeletal muscle, which was differentiated in parallel, to create a co-culture amenable to both cell types. The multi-layered rings were then sequentially placed on a stationary three-dimensional-printed hydrogel structure resembling an anatomical muscle–tendon–bone organization. We demonstrate that the site-specific innervation of a group of muscle fibers in the multi-layered tissue rings allows for muscle contraction via chemical stimulation of MNs with glutamate, a major excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian nervous system, with the frequency of contraction increasing with glutamate concentration. The addition of tubocurarine chloride (a nicotinic receptor antagonist) halted the contractions, indicating that muscle contraction was MN induced. With a bio-fabricated system permitting controllable mechanical and geometric attributes in a range of length scales, our novel engineered cellular system can be utilized for easier integration of other modular “building blocks” in living cellular and biological machines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number17015
JournalMicrosystems and Nanoengineering
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 19 2017


  • 3D printing
  • neuromuscular junction
  • skeletal muscle
  • stereolithography
  • tissue engineering

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atomic and Molecular Physics, and Optics
  • Materials Science (miscellaneous)
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering


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