Scientists Build First‑Ever Robot That Lives and Dies, From Frog Cells
Scientists have created a robot — not from steel or chemicals or plastics, but from biological cells extracted from an African clawed frog species. For the first time ever, researchers from Harvard University, Tufts University, and the Universe of Burlington have managed to create a xenobot — a never-before-seen life form that one researcher describes to Forbes as “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal.” It’s a “new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
The scientists’ report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, states the xenobots have two stumpy legs, on which they can walk of their own accord, and a chest. A variation of the xenobot has a hole that scientists have turned into a pouch so it can carry payloads. The living machine has been programmed to move in either linear or circular directions, heal itself when damaged, and carry out assigned tasks after which it promptly disintegrates.
Less than 1 millimeter long, the xenobots were created by scientists using a supercomputer, on which they designed 3D versions of skin and heart cells taken from the frog species. These were then tested in a virtual environment to observe how the heart cells — that contract and expand, acting as engines for the entire organism — engaged in movement when stitched together with skin cells using microsurgery tools. The final prototypes of these xenobots, with the optimal combination of heart and skin cells, were programmed using an “evolutionary algorithm,” and could last for a week to up to 10 days before disintegrating automatically.
“These are very small, but ultimately the plan is to make them to scale,” one of the experiment leads and the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University, Michael Levin, told The Guardian, adding the xenobots could eventually also sport more biological characteristics, such as blood vessels and nervous systems to form eyes. So far, the xenobots have been tested in pools of water, but if built of mammalian cells, they could eventually be programmed to live on land, Levin added.
Related on The Swaddle:
These living machines can be used to clear microplastic pollution from water bodies, digest toxic waste, or be deployed to fix internal organs in human bodies. “If you think about birth defects, cancer, age-related diseases, all of these things could be solved if we knew how to make biological structures, to have ultimate control over growth and form,” Levin told The Guardian, adding, “The aim is to understand the software of life.”
But, there are several ethical concerns with making a programmable machine entirely with biological tissue. “At what point would they become beings with interests that ought to be protected?” Thomas Douglas, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, told The Guardian. “I think they’d acquire moral significance only if they included neural tissue that enabled some kind of mental life, such as the ability to experience pain.”
“But some are more liberal about moral status. They think that all living creatures have interests that should be given some moral consideration. For these people, difficult questions could arise about whether these xenobots should be classified as living creatures or machines.” [<who says this?]