Created using cutting edge biotechnology, xenobots are the world’s first living robots. They can amazingly make decisions and reproduce all on their own. These tiny living machines made out of frog cells duplicate themselves by collecting resources from the environment, with their offspring going on to do the same. The species of frog the cells are taken from is called the African clawed frog or Xenopus laevis, hence the name xenobots.
“Most people think of robots as made of metals and ceramics but it’s not so much what a robot is made from but what it does, which is act on its own on behalf of people,” said Josh Bongard, a computer science and robotics expert who is the lead author of the study detailing this creation. “In that way it’s a robot but it’s also clearly an organism made from genetically unmodified frog cell.”
How are they created?
Researchers collaborating from a number of universities created this technology by taking skin stem cells from frog embryos. These structures meshed themselves together into small spheres of around 4,000 to 6,000 cells, coming together to create one xenobot.
From the spheres, a cellular extension called a cilia grows. This structure acts as a motor for the biological robots to propel themselves around their environment. While the organisms are moving around, they collect stem cells from the environment. It is when around 50 cells have been gathered that a second generation of xenobots can assemble and move just like their parents. This type of movement-created reproduction, named kinematic self-replication, is a first in living cells.
Refining the bots using AI
The report, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes how their AI algorithm was used to prolong the number of generations the xenobots survived for. The program predicted the most efficient shape for collecting parts to be a “C” shape, kind of like an open-mouthed Pac-Mac. The researchers took this advice and edited the cells so they assembled in this manner, resulting in an increase in the number of generations from two to four.
Why is this so exciting?
The microscopic size of this invention could forward medical science in many ways. “The fact that they were able to do this at such a small scale just makes it even better, because you can start to imagine biomedical application areas,” said Kirstin Petersen, a researcher in the group. Xenobots could possibly be used in delivering therapeutics to specific spots in the body, sculpting tissues for implantation, and many more applications we cannot even imagine yet.
Machines that are self-perpetuating are a step toward systems that humans do not need to operate, a mind blowing concept with numerous potential applications. The technology breakthrough discovery is at the very early stages of its development, so we have plenty of time to figure out the best way of implementing it in society.
Source study: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – Kinematic self-replication in reconfigurable organisms