A group of scientists from the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University announced the discovery of the world’s first living robot called Xenebots in 2020. Now, a year later, these AI-designed bots have biologically reproduced – ‘promising for regenerative medicine’ according to the scientists.
What are Xenebots – The World’s First Living Robots?
The xenebots are formed from the stem cells of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), its namesake. They extracted the cells from the frog embryo and developed it into a simple programmable organism in a petri dish. “The cells aren’t genetically modified at all, but simply combined in different arrangements to produce the xenobots,” said a senior scientist of the study.
Although termed a ‘robot’, they do not resemble the typical robot with ‘shiny gears or robotic arms’. “They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism,” one of the lead researchers, Joshua Bongard, remarked in a news release.
These bots have a tiny hair-like structure on them called cilia, which helps them to move as well as clump other cells onto them in their natural habitat. This led the scientists to wonder whether they would enforce the same clumping method when introduced with loose cells. Turns out, they do!
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Reproduction and offsprings
The spheroid shape of the xenebots failed to clump the desired amount of loose cells. Scientists then intervened to alter the shape using artificial intelligence, which suggested a C-shape – somewhat resembling a Pac-man. “We asked the supercomputer to figure out how to adjust the shape of the initial parents, and the AI came up with some strange designs after months of chugging away, including one that resembled Pac-Man,” says Sam Kriegman, Ph.D., the lead author on the new study.
However, the replication of xenebots is quite unlike that of frogs, or any animal or plant for that matter. These bots reproduce using ‘kinematic self-replication’. Co-author Josh Bongard explains the process as, “One [xenobot]parent can begin a pile and then, by chance, a second parent can push more cells into that pile, and so on, generating the child.”
This self-replication of xenebots is a monumental feat. The bots can be engineered into medical devices, help research with biology, and more!
“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. The xenobots can survive in aqueous environments without additional nutrients for days or weeks — making them suitable for internal drug delivery,” reports CNN at the time of its initial discovery in 2020.
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Feature image via Wyss Institute.