Scientists are the University of Vermont have created they claim to be “living robots.” The first of their kind, these robots have been created out of living cells making them an entirely new life form according to a recent article in The Independent.
Never before has humanity managed to create “completely biological machines from the ground up”, wrote the research team in a recent paper.
The cells have been derived from frog embryos and turned into a machine that can be programmed to work any way the research team wants.
Such a discovery could allow the tiny “xenobots” to be dispatched throughout a patient’s body to transport medicine or even do environmental work such as retrieving pollution from the ocean. The scientists claim the xenobots even have the ability to regenerate themselves when damaged.
The new hybrids used of a supercomputer for their design and were then later built by biologists. “These are novel living machines,” says Joshua Bongard, the University of Vermont expert who co-led the new research. “They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
The xenobots were built at Tufts University. “We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can’t do like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering micro-plastic in the oceans, travelling in arteries to scrape out plaque,” said co-leader Michael Levin who directs the Centre for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University.
Researchers used a supercomputer to create thousands of possible designs for the new life-forms. The scientists used a virtual version of evolution and would assign a task to the computer and then calculate what design might work best for it.
The second part of their research involved microsurgeons bringing the designs to real life. They would take stem cells from the embryos of African frogs, incubate them and then use specialized tools to cut them apart and reassemble them into the design that was created by the computer.
This combination of real organic material being infused to create a life-form that had previously not existed anywhere in nature is a definite first in the field.
The xenobots already have the ability to push pellets around and organize themselves collectively and spontaneously.
Scientists think this is just the beginning and that they will be able to create an even more complex version of the xenobots. The computer simulations so far suggest that it should be possible for future xenobots with a pouch on their body to carry an object, such as entering the body and administering a drug by swimming through the body, for example.
The xenobots can regenerate themselves when damaged. Robots can be sliced almost in two and will be able to fix themselves again. Unlike traditional materials used for robots in the past, xenobots will be entirely biodegradable after they are finished.
There is a danger in all of this however, researchers admit. For example, developments could be programmed in ways that we do not understand and the more complex the systems become, the harder the xenobots behaviour will be to predict.
“If humanity is going to survive into the future, we need to better understand how complex properties, somehow, emerge from simple rules,” said Levin in a statement. “This study is a direct contribution to getting a handle on what people are afraid of, which is unintended consequences,” he said.