Imagine this: you render a 3D model of a robot on a computer, run it in a virtual environment, and then send it off to a scientist who makes a real life model of it using frog cells. Sound like something out of an 80s sci-fi movie or H. G. Wells novel? Well, at the start of 2020, this has become a reality. A collaboration between Tufts University, the University of Vermont, and Harvard University has produced exactly this.
Computers Laying the Groundwork
The initial stages in the development of the xenobots (a term that comes from the marriage of xeno, from the Xenopus laevis frog species which the stem cells were harvested from, and bot as in robot) begin in a place lacking chemicals and white coats–a computer lab. The Deep Green cluster of supercomputers at the University of Vermont was home to the design work. The process consisted of utilizing evolutionary algorithms to determine which xenobots would have the highest chance of success in a non-theoretical environment. First, a goal for the xenobots was established and then potential designs were rendered. These designs were then assessed by the algorithm to see which ones performed the best. The high performers were then bred with other high performers in a simulated natural selection to establish the fittest organisms. After painstakingly repeating this process hundreds of times, the winning designs were sent off to Tufts University for the next phase.
Assembling the Xenobots
To assemble the xenobots, the researchers first assembled frog embryos that were then scraped for living stem cells. These stem cells were then separated into single cells, incubated, and differentiated into heart and skin cells. Why heart and skin cells specifically you ask? The heart cells help with locomotion and the skin cells contribute structure. From these cells, the xenobots are assembled in accordance with the winning designs produced with the computer algorithm phase. This task is accomplished with tiny forceps and a tiny electrode. After the xenobots are assembled and observed in a watery environment, the information learned is sent back to the computer team to help them perfect future designs.
Could the Xenobots Potentially Do Anything Useful?
You may be sitting there thinking:
“Wow, these things are a miracle! Can they also deliver Amazon packages or tell me why my crush never texted me back?”
Well, not quite, but they do have the potential to do some other pretty useful stuff like digesting toxic material, cleaning up microplastics, or delivering drugs inside our bodies. This could be a novel approach to cleaning up the plastics in our oceans or administering medicine to hospital patients. The possibilities for application are truly endless.
What are the Ethical Implications of Xenobots?
Since xenobots are technically living things, there has been some concern voiced about their ethical implications. Should they be tested on an animal model or human model? Since they are a living thing, do they have rights? Some bioethicists fear that there isn’t a clear direction of what this new technology will be used for, which could lead to unintended consequences. In addition, there has also been some backlash over the usage of stem cells to develop these tiny critters. With the huge potential for good that these creatures could do, these are tough questions to grapple with. Since the research on xenobots is still in its infancy, it will be interesting to see what unfolds with this project in the future, and how these bioethical questions are answered.
Sources/Where to head to learn more:
These Are the First Living Robots: Machines Mades from Frog Stem Cells, Courtney Linder (Popular Mechanics) https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/robots/a30514544/xenobot-programmable-organism/
Meet Xenobot, an Eerie New Kind of Programmable Organism, Matt Simon (Wired)
Meet the xenobots: Researchers create living, programmable robots from frog stem cells, Ian Vickers (Click On Detroit) https://www.clickondetroit.com/news/local/2020/01/15/meet-the-xenobots-researchers-create-living-programmable-robots-from-frog-stem-cells/