Tiny robot frogs made from living cells 'an entirely new life-form'

Large adult African clawed frog swimming in dirty water

The notion of having living organisms inside our body, that can possibly be programmed for malicious intent, is nerve-wracking.

A group of U.S. researchers has created what they say are the first-ever living robots, which were made of frog embryos' cells and can be programmed for a specific job, according to their study published by the USA journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To design Xenobots, a supercomputer and an algorithm capable of combining several hundred frog heart and skin cells in different configurations and simulating results were required. Although Xenobots are now relatively harmless, there are potential uses in the future for incorporation into nervous system cells or development in biological weapons.

Because heart cells spontaneously contract and relax, they behave like miniature engines that drive the robots along until their energy reserves run out.

The cells later started to work on their own. The prospect of so-called living robots - and using technology to create living organisms - understandably raises concerns for some, said Levin.

The living machines are named as Xenobots, after the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) from which they have taken their stem cells, reported CNN.

They could move around in circles, collectively pushing pellets into a central location. The xenobots, as they are being called, were designed on a supercomputer at UVM that modeled simulations of certain passive and contractile cellular behaviors, then assigned the models simple tasks like moving or rotating.

Xenobots could be used to clean up radioactive waste, collect microplastics in the oceans, carry medicine inside human bodies, or even travel into our arteries to scrape out plaque.

An article detailing the investigation was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Assembled into body forms, the cells began working together. These biological machines are also more environmentally friendly than traditional robots, which deteriorate with time and have the potential to "produce harmful ecological and health side effects", claim the researchers. "That's why we use steel".

In another test, the scientists cut the living robots and watched what happened. But organisms have 4.5 billion years of practice at regenerating themselves and going on for decades.

Once built, the biological machines are tested to see if they perform their inbuilt function as intended.

"We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can't do", said study co-author Michael Levin, director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University in MA. We slice [a xenobot] nearly in half and it stitches itself back up and keeps going.

"As we've shown, these frog cells can be coaxed to make interesting living forms that are completely different from what their default anatomy would be", says Levin.

"These xenobots are totally biodegradable - once they're finished with their job after seven days, they're simply useless pores and skin cells", stated Professor Bongard.

"This is something you can't do with typical machines", Bongard said.

"That distress isn't unreasonable", Levin stated.

"What's important to me is that this is public, so we can have a discussion as a society and policymakers can decide what is the best course of action", says Sam Kriegman, PhD student at the UofV.



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