Researchers create “xenobot” – world’s first living, self-healing robots created from frog stem cells

Artificial Intelligence methods automatically design diverse candidate lifeforms in simulation (top row) to perform some desired function, and transferable designs are then created using a cell-based construction toolkit to realize living systems (bottom row) with the predicted behaviors. Image credit: https://cdorgs.github.io/

The thought of microscopic robots brings the image of Hollywood blockbusters such as “Terminator” and other science-fiction movies to mind that are set years into the distant future. But a group of scientists have gotten one step closer to bringing these elements only seen on the big screen to reality.

Researchers at the University of Vermont and Tufts University were able to create what they call “xenobots” – the world’s first living, self healing robots created from frog stem cells. Named after the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, they are tiny blobs of moving cells made from stem cells obtained from frog embryos. They are less than a millimeter wide, making them small enough to travel inside the human body. Additionally, they have the ability to walk and swim, survive for weeks without food, and work together in groups.

Here is a brief video showing what these cells look like under the microscope:

The researchers were able take the stem cells from the embryo and increased their numbers by incubating them. After this, the cells were cut and rejoined using tiny forceps under a microscope into specific forms designed by artificial intelligence. These newly created forms are ones not found in nature and what is more remarkable is that they started working together. The skin cells bonded to form a structure while the heart cells worked together to create motion. These cells also displayed the ability to heal themselves after being cut.

In a news release from the University of Vermont, Dr. Josh Bongard, who co-led this research, described the xenobots in more detail.

“These are novel living machines. They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

In the same news release, Dr. Michael Levin, who also co-led this research, talks about the possibilities these xenobots have for real world applications for a wide range of issues.

“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 microplastic in the oceans, traveling in arteries to scrape out plaque.”

The full results to this study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

You can learn more about this work in the video below:

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