Scientists created the world's first living robots.

These biobots can be used to transport drugs or collect microplastics from the oceans.

Reprogrammable organisms (biobots).
Reprogrammable organisms (biobots).

A team of scientists from American universities in Vermont and Tufts presented several reprogrammable organisms (biobots) halfway between the robot and a living creature known as the first living robots.

These little robots, which move on their own, were created by assembling the cells of African claw frogs (Xenopus laevis).

The researchers adapted stem cells taken from the embryo of an African frog and created small live robots called Xenopus laevis. 

They are only 1 mm wide and can be programmed to perform a variety of tasks. These tasks include transporting drugs directly to a specific point in the body, destroying cancer cells or removing microplastics from the oceans.

According to experts, these new artificial cells cannot be destroyed and are even capable of regenerating themselves.

These robots, built entirely from living cells, are small drops of submillimeter size, containing from 500 to 1000 cells. They are capable of moving through a petri dish, self-organizing and even carrying tiny payloads.

They differ from any living organism or organ that people have found or created to date because they are not traditional robots or animals, and their capabilities are fascinating.

"They are new living machines," said computer specialist Joshua Bongard, co-author of a study published by PNAS magazine.

Evolutionary algorithm

The design of xenobots required the use of a supercomputer (Deep Green) and an algorithm that could practically collect several hundred hearts and cells of frog skin in various configurations (as if they were LEGO bricks) and model the results.

A team of biologists from Tufts University collected cells in live bots, only one millimeter wide. When these cells were assembled in ways never seen in nature, they started working together.

The skin cells formed a 'body' and the contractions in the heart muscle cells were reused to create a movement forward, allowing these incredible robots to move independently.

Xenobots were able to explore the aquatic environment for days or weeks, controlled only by embryonic energy deposits. Some crawled in a straight line, while others circled or joined others as they moved.

As we have shown, these frog cells can be assembled to create interesting living forms that are completely different from their standard anatomy," said Michael Levin, co-author of the study.

These xenobots are very small, but in the end the plan is to make them large.

Xenobots can be designed from blood vessels, nervous system and sensory cells to form rudimentary eyes and they could live on land as they are built from mammalian cells.

Ethical issues.

The authors recognize that the work poses ethical problems, particularly because future options may have a nervous system and may be chosen based on their cognitive abilities.

"It's important to me that it's public so that we can have a debate as a society and as politicians can decide which option is best," said Sam Krigman, a member of the Vermont University team.

Although the team calls them 'living', that name may depend on how we define living beings. These xenobots can't develop on their own because they don't have reproductive organs and can't reproduce, so when cells run out of nutrients, they turn into dead cells.

Can they be turned into biological weapons? At the moment, they are far from being a threat to humanity.

Link: A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms. Sam Krigman, Douglas Blackiston, Michael Levin and Josh Bongard. PNAS first published January, 2020.