Xenobots: The world’s computer-designed living, self-healing robots created from stem cells

Scientists have created the world’s first living robots from the stem cells of frogs. These “computer-designed organisms” are self-healing, and are named “xenobots” after the Xenopus laevis, the African clawed frog. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The xenobots derive their stem cells from this particular species of frog. These living robots can walk, swim, survive for weeks without food, and work in groups. They are less than a millimeter (0.04 inches) wide.

Stems cells are a special type of cells that have the ability to develop into any type of cell that is required. There is a lot of research that goes in regarding the manipulation of stem cells for regeneration of dying cells later on. Heavy interest in stem cells’ ability to replace dying cells and extend lifespans have created multiple companies that store stem cells at a young age to be used later in life.

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Why use stem cells to make living robots?

The researchers’ website says, “Most technologies are made from steel, concrete, chemicals and plastics, which degrade over time and can produce harmful ecological and health side effects. It would thus be useful to build technologies using self-renewing and biocompatible materials, of which the ideal candidates are living systems themselves.”

Xenobots - Computer designed organisms
AI methods automatically design diverse candidate lifeforms in simulation (top row) to perform some desired function, and transferable designs are then created using a cell-based construction toolkit to realize living systems (bottom row) with the predicted behaviors. | Source: cdorgs.github.io

The researchers have taken up the task of redefining robotics from being made of metals and electronics to computer-designed living machines. This is done by using computers to combine different biological tissue.

The researchers say that “others may use this approach to design a variety of living machines to safely deliver drugs inside the human body, help with environmental remediation, or further broaden our understanding of the diverse forms and functions life may adopt.”

The xenobots

These xenobots are very simple organisms. They also have self-healing abilities that allow them to reconstruct itself and continue moving. Joshua Bongard, one of the lead researchers at the University of Vermont, said in the press release, “These are novel living machines. They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

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Xenobots - Computer designed organisms

The main reasoning behind a living robot is that it can achieve and execute tasks that traditional robotics cannot. Some of the xenobots were designed with holes in the middle, which could possibly be used to transport medicines or other drugs to certain parts of the body.

Potential uses of xenobots

  • Clean up radioactive waste
  • Collect microplastics in oceans
  • Deliver drugs and medication in the body
  • Scrape out plaque in arteries
  • Help researchers understand cell biology

The most important application is obviously health and medicine. Xenobots being made of biological material makes it safe for internal drug delivery.

“If we could make 3D biological form on demand, we could repair birth defects, reprogram tumors into normal tissue, regenerate after traumatic injury or degenerative disease, and defeat aging.”

AI and Bio-robotics

The researchers say that even though supercomputers use AI in a big way to build these organisms, it is unlikely that it will create a negative impact in the future. “At the moment though it is difficult to see how an AI could create harmful organisms any easier than a talented biologist with bad intentions could,” said the researchers’ website.

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