Xenobots: How the World’s First Organic Robots are Amphibian, African, and Smart

Researchers gaze into a microscope to watch tiny, marshmallow-like globules navigate a petri dish filled with liquid. The globs are focused on sorting some specks of matter placed inside the dish. They scoot around slowly, working together to push the matter into small stacks. When one of the globs gets cut, it quickly heals and continues moving. These fascinating little masses are intelligently crafted combinations of frog cells.

When you think of frogs, the first things that come to mind include their unique croak, bubble throat, wet and slimy body, oddly positioned eyes, and perhaps even fear. However, researchers at the University of Vermont and Tufts University saw something entirely different in frogs aside from their peculiar characteristics: their cells. By scraping off skin and heart muscle cells from the embryo of the Xenopus laevis, also known as the African clawed frog, Dr. Joshua Bongard and his team of three were able to assemble the aptly named Xenobots, the world’s first biological robots.

The team used a supercomputer running an evolutionary algorithm — basically ultra-fast trial and error — to find the optimal geometries for the Xenobots so they can efficiently communicate, operate, and heal. Cells are sticklers for coordination and layout, so the Xenobots’ cells must be correctly arranged to function. The algorithm simulates physical activities based on shape, which the Xenobots mimic. Each Xenobot design corresponds to a specific physical task.

Xenobots are bundles of cells, so they don’t have nuts, bolts, or run on electricity. Instead, they behave like living things. Xenobots move autonomously, heal after injury, communicate with other Xenobots, and consume nutrients for energy, much like humans do. They’re about 0.1 to 10 micrometers, are made up of 500 to 1000 cells, and live for ten days at the maximum. Though they may sound underwhelming, Xenobots represent an advent in technological sophistication. In the University of Vermont’s video, they were described as “entirely new life forms” and called “novel living machines” by Bongard.

Aside from their impressive look and awesome name, Xenobots are the subject of cutting-edge research and development. At the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts, scientists are looking to use Xenobots for life-saving and environment-cleansing tasks, from clearing out arteries of smokers to collecting small plastics in the ocean. They even have applications in precision drug delivery and microsurgery. They’re also completely biodegradable.

Despite its diversity of potential applications, Xeno-robotics is still in its nascent stage. Xenobots have been the topic of ethics conversations concerning possible malicious uses, such as in warfare and biological weaponry. Xenobots themselves could also pose risks to humans as they become more advanced; they could malfunction and begin eating away at tissues during microsurgery and the like. Fundamentally, a lot more research needs to be done on cells and biology to understand and develop Xenobots. That said, they’re an interesting and exciting start to something new. Power to you, microscale African frog cell colonies!

Thanks so much for being curious and actually reading through this article. It was a lot of fun to make, research, and develop, so I’m glad you made it through. For more on Xenobots and biotech, read my Medium, and/or check out Dr. Kreigman, Blackiston, Levin, or Bongard, and this article. If you’re any of these researchers, or affiliated with this research, I would love to engage with you further, and feel free to fact check this article even more! If not, I would still love to talk and I hope you enjoyed this article.

My name’s Okezue, a developer and researcher obsessed with learning and building things, especially when it involves any biology or computer science. Check out my socials here, or contact me: i@okezuebell.com.

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Works Cited
1. Ball, P. (2020, February 25). Living robots. Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41563-020-0627-6

2. Hallberg, G. (2020, April 23). What if, instead of the internet, we had xenobots? Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/books/review/bubblegum-adam-levin.html

3. Heaven, W. (2020, April 02). These “xenobots” are living machines designed by an evolutionary algorithm. Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/01/14/238128/these-xenobots-are-living-machines-designed-by-an-evolutionary-algorithm/

4. Living robots built using frog cells. (2020, January 13). Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200113175653.htm

5. “Living robots”: Ethical questions about xenobots. (n.d.). Retrieved March 03, 2021, from http://www.bioethics.net/2020/02/living-robots-ethical-questions-about-xenobots/

6. Simon, M. (n.d.). Meet xenobot, an EERIE new kind of Programmable Organism. Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.wired.com/story/xenobot/

7. Sokol, J. (2020, April 03). Meet the xenobots, virtual creatures brought to life. Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/03/science/xenobots-robots-frogs-xenopus.html

8. Xenobot. (2020, November 21). Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenobot

9. Yeung, J. (2020, January 15). Scientists have built the world’s first living, Self-healing robots. Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/13/us/living-robot-stem-cells-intl-hnk-scli-scn/index.html

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