Scientists build first living robots using frog stem cells

Pablo Tucker
January 15, 2020

According to reports, the robots have been built in such a way that they can survive without food for a couple of weeks and also have the ability to work in groups.

"We can imagine many worthwhile purposes of those residing robots that other machines can't attain", stated gape co-writer Michael Levin, director of the Heart for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University in MA.

In the future their unique feature may enable robotic versions that may be deployed to clean up microplastics from the ocean, locate and digest toxic materials, or deliver drugs in a human body as well as remove plaque from artery walls.

The findings were published online January 13 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As The Guardian explains, these are tiny, artificially created life forms, made to perform a particular task, such as moving or carrying a small payload. It's a new class of artefact: "a living, programmable organism". Later on, the cells were cut and moulded into specific forms developed by a supercomputer. Although Xenobots are now relatively harmless, there are potential uses in the future for incorporation into nervous system cells or development in biological weapons. Large fleets of xenobots could be sent out into the environment or inside the human body to do their work, and then simply deteriorate like any other biological cells once their task is complete. Frog skin cells form the structure, and the contractions of the amphibian heart cells provide the power to propel the xenobots. "These xenobots are fully biodegradable, when they're done with their job after seven days, they're just dead skin cells".

These reconfigurable organisms were shown to be able move in a coherent fashion-and explore their watery environment for days or weeks, powered by embryonic energy stores.

However, none of the team's designs was able to turn itself over when flipped on its back. Some of the xenobots were designed with a hole through the center to reduce drag but the team was able to repurpose it so that the bots could carry an object. Instead, these fleets of robots capable of traveling through our bodies might be made of something entirely unexpected: Frog cells.

"At the moment though it is hard to see how an AI could create harmful organisms any easier than a talented biologist with bad intentions could", said the researchers' website. "Despite this, we believe that, as this technology matures, regulation of its use and misuse should be a high priority".

Stem cells - that may flip into any tissue or organ - have been then harvested from the embryos of the frogs and left to incubate.

"And this is something you can't do with typical machines", Bongard added.

After the designs evolved over 100 generations, the researchers chose a small sample to build in the laboratory using early-stage skin and heart cells collected from African frogs.

"As we have proven, these frog cells may be coaxed to make fascinating residing kinds which might be utterly completely different from what their default anatomy could be", stated Bongard.

"The big question in biology is to understand the algorithms that determine form and function", says Levin. "After we delivery up to debris spherical with advanced systems that we do not perceive, we will net unintended consequences".

"What's important to me is that this is public, so we can have a discussion as a society and policymakers can decide what is the best course of action", says Sam Kriegman, PhD student at the UofV.

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