Scientists in the United States have created the world’s first “living machines” — tiny robots built from the cells of the African clawed frog, that can move around on their own.
They have named the millimetre-wide robots “xenobots” — after the species of aquatic frog found across sub-Saharan Africa from Nigeria and Sudan to South Africa, Xenopus laevis.
“Scientists have repurposed living cells scraped from frog embryos and assembled them into entirely new life-forms,” the University of Vermont said in a press release last week. The xenobots “can move toward a target, perhaps pick up a payload (like a medicine that needs to be carried to a specific place inside a patient) — and heal themselves after being cut”, it said.
Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the university who co-led the new research said the “novel living machines” were “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal”, but “a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism”.
The new creatures were designed on a supercomputer at the university, and then assembled and tested by biologists at Tufts University. “We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can’t do,” research co-leader Michael Levin of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts, was quoted as saying in the release. “Like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering microplastic in the oceans, travelling in arteries to scrape out plaque,” Levin said.
The results of the new research were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (‘A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms’). While humans have been manipulating organisms for their benefit since at least the dawn of agriculture, and genetic editing has created a few artificial organisms in recent years, the latest research is a breakthrough because it designs, for the first time ever, “completely biological machines from the ground up”, the researchers wrote in their paper.
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