Meet Xenobots, first living robots that can self-heal

Eloise Marshall
January 16, 2020

"These are novel living machines", University of Vermont computer scientist and robotics expert Joshua Bongard said.

The xenobots - named after the Xenopus laevis frog species - are just 1mm across, can move towards a target, pick up payloads and even heal themselves when damaged. In the new experiments, the scientists cut the xenobots and watched what happened.

Neither a robot nor an animal, xenobots use living cells to create a programmable machine that could one day clean up toxic waste.

The living machines, also referred to as "reconfigurable organisms", are created using evolutionary algorithms, which design biological organisms that are then built in reality using frog cells.

Assembled into body forms never seen in nature, the cells began to work together. And once inside the human body, they may be able to unclog arteries and prevent that imminent heart attack the doctor has warned you about.

A study published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences described the living, programmable organism, a completely new biological machine designed from ground up.

It worked using rules about what the simple cells the would serve as the materials could do, in the end giving scientists theoretical designs for the life-forms.

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This was done through a virtual version of evolution, with scientists setting the computer a task and it calculating what design might work best.

Researchers have managed to create mobile living robots using enhanced stem cells extracted from a frog's embryos. After this, the cells were cut and reshaped into specific "body forms", said a news release from the University of Vermont. These organisms were able to explore their watery environment for days or weeks, powered only by embryonic energy stores. We can certainly quibble about whether or not these robots qualify as being truly alive, but they're most certainly a precursor to fully formed artificially constructed lifeforms.

Many of our gadgets and other technologies are made of steel, plastic, silicon. They have coined the robots "entirely new life-forms".

It is worth noting that these living bots do not look like regular mechanically actuated metal/plastic machines. What's more interesting is that the live robots were sliced into half and surprisingly, it stitched itself and kept going. (Hence the name "xenobots.") These were separated into single cells and left to incubate. In the 1993 film (spoilers ahead, but it's been nearly 30 years) a team of scientists cobble together some dinosaur DNA with stem cells from modern creatures including, you guessed it: frogs.

The scientists are able to build the simulated model in real life by, essentially, taking fertilized frog embryos, separating their constituent cells, and then rebuilding those cells into the shape of the simulated model by cauterizing them together.

"The big question in biology is to understand the algorithms that determine form and function", says Levin.

Levin says that being fearful of what complex biological manipulations can bring about is "not unreasonable", and are very likely going to result in at least some "unintended consequences", but explains that the current research aims to get a handle on such consequences.

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