Xenobots could also be the name of a children's series on Netflix. Instead, there is a biological sensation behind it. For the first time, researchers have developed completely new life forms that can be programmed like machines. The little bio robots can run, swim and even work in a team. And: they are small enough to move in the human body.
The milimeter-sized robots were created from stem cells from the African frog Xenopus laevis, to which they owe their name. "These are completely new, living machines," Joshua Bongard said in a press release from the University of Vermont. The computer scientist and robotics expert led the research team. "You are neither a classic robot nor a well-known species of animal. It is a completely new species: a living, programmable organism."
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First, the researchers used highly complex computer simulations to calculate how the evolution of the desired capabilities of the Xenobots would take place. To do this, an artificial intelligence calculated the possible compositions of a few hundred cells for months and ultimately output the most promising variants.
In the laboratory, a group of researchers then turned the blueprints of the new organisms into reality. To do this, the required cells were first grown, cut with tiny tweezers and electrodes, and reassembled. Organisms were born that have never been found in nature before.
The experiment actually worked. The new creatures moved as the computer intended and explored their new surroundings. Tests showed that the Xenobots could move objects alone and together. Some of them, which were designed with a hole in the middle, were even able to simulate objects placed in them to the intended locations. "This is an important step in intelligently distributing medication with the help of computer-designed organisms," explains Bongard.
Biodegradable and self-healing
While biological decay is a disadvantage in buildings or classic machines, it becomes an advantage in Xenobots. "When they're done after about seven days, they're just dead cell material," Bongard explains. "The Xenobots are completely biodegradable." Which does not mean that they are not prepared for damage. "We cut one of the robots almost in half. It reassembled itself and just kept going."
The researchers see their work as an important step in more fundamental questions. For example, what determines the structure of an organism. "We built the Xenobots with cells that belong to the genome of frogs. They are 100 percent frogs – but they are not frogs. One wonders what else could arise from these cells," philosophizes Michael Levin, who is also one led the teams.
The researchers understand the concerns many people have about reinventing life. "Such fear is understandable," said Levin. "If you play around with complex systems that we don't fully understand, there will always be consequences that we couldn't estimate before." Nevertheless, he sees research as an important step. "If we want to survive as human beings, we have to better understand how complex properties arise from simple rules."
Bongard agrees with him. "Life has this inherent creativity. We want to understand it better and find out how to control it and push it into new forms."
Source: University of Vermont, PNAS