What if the lifting of the machines ultimately came from … the frogs? Scientists have developed a new type of creature: a kind of robot, made entirely of biological material. These “xenobots” would be endowed with remarkable capacities and could have multiple applications. But they also raise ethical questions.
After the frogmen, here are the robot-frogs. Researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of Tufts (United States) have created a prototype of a “living machine”, using stem cells from a particular species of amphibian: the smooth Xenopus, or Xénope du Cape (Xenopus laevis). Hence the name of the robots: the “xenobots”.
From computer modeling to prototype
To begin with, the scientists performed computer simulations on a supercomputer. Using an algorithm based on the theory of evolution, they thus generated and tested several hundred models, shapes and different constitutions. Over the course of the experiments, the least interesting creations were eliminated and the best were reworked. A kind of natural selection, but carried out artificially.
Then you had to move from theory to practice. The researchers therefore selected the best combinations and gave them “life” in the laboratory. To do this, they removed skin and heart stem cells from frog embryos, before reconstituting an organism using tiny tools. And quickly, in the water, xenobots less than 1 mm long began to move.
A unique regeneration capacity for a robot
But what is particularly remarkable is that these movements could have been anticipated by the authors of the study. Thanks to their computer modeling, they studied the behavior of cells according to the shape given to the organism. And therefore were able to sculpt the robots so that they move in the way desired by the researchers.
Another remarkable property of xenobots: they are able to regenerate on their own. Scientists have indeed found that, even after having been almost cut in half, they could reconstitute themselves automatically and continue their task. In addition, they have the advantage of being fully biodegradable, leaving only dead cells at the end of their life.
To be or not to be ?
As many characteristics which let glimpse many possible applications: cleaning of the oceans, detection of toxic materials, transport of drugs in the human body … The authors of the discovery are already working on models with a pocket, in order to to be able to make them carry tiny objects.
However, this innovation inevitably raises ethical questions, all the more so because the work is funded by DARPA, an agency of the United States Department of Defense, responsible for the development of new technologies for military use. The general public could, for example, see this as a risk of loss of control over potentially optimized creatures. A threat for the limited time, given the very limited capabilities of these robots at present.
On the other hand, these “completely new forms of life” raise moral questions about their status and their consideration. Are these machines or living creatures? Especially since the next models could carry nerve cells … Should we then see them as beings endowed with sensitivity? Debates similar to those around cloning could thus resurface.
Source: The Guardian