When we think of futuristic robots we often envision cold hard machines made of metal, plastic, and electricity. It could be, however, that the robots of the future are 100% biological and made from living cells. A living biological robot has advantages over those made of synthetic materials because they have the ability to self heal and reproduce. The living robots were just recently created for the first time in 2020 and they are popularly referred to in the media as “xenobots”. Xenobots were created by taking the stem cells from an African Clawed Frog embryo and reorganizing them into a completely new organism. They are considered robots because they were not created by nature, but instead by an artificial intelligence algorithm. Their evolution took place inside a virtual simulation instead of the real natural world. This is done by giving an AI program information such as the cells in question and a task for the cells to complete. If you ask the program to make the cells organized in a way that gives them the ability to walk, for instance, the AI would figure it out pretty quickly. Biologists then manually build the cells in the shape that the AI discovered was most optimal to complete the task. What is really incredible about the xenobots is their ability to regenerate after they have been damaged. This is due to the regenerative abilities within the cells of the African Clawed Frog. Is it possible for us to learn from naturally regenerative cells so that humans may one day have the same self healing abilities? Imagine being able to regrow limbs, stop aging, and even become immortal.
How exactly do regenerative cells differ from ones that aren’t? The answer lies in the language the cells use to communicate to each other. You see, when cells create a body they do it by using teamwork and are constantly in communication with other cells. The language they all use to communicate is bioelectricity. Cells are constantly talking to one another and the key to unlocking their self healing ability is to learn their language. If we can take the regenerative cells of the African Clawed frog and become fluent in their language we could tell the cells to complete a number of amazing tasks. If scientists could figure out exactly what they are communicating to one another, we could mimic this same bioelectric information to human cells making them have the ability to heal when injured, but why stop there? If this language barrier is cracked we could be able to command cells to do incredible tasks such as grow new organs when ours fail us.
This has already been done in an experiment with planaria, also known as flat worms. As scientists experimented by using bioelectricity to communicate with cells within the worms, they successfully convinced these cells to grow an additional eye. As you can see above, the worm has this extra eye located on the gut, which is exactly where the scientists intended for the eye to be grown. This proves that the information in DNA is not the only factor at play when an organism is created. Itis possible to use bioelectricity to manipulate cells to reorganize in novel ways that are not innate in the DNA of an organism. What is especially convenient about this discovery is that we can simply command the cells to create a new organ and they will do it themselves without us having to create it by tediously organizing the cells ourselves. The possibilities are endless. We could create new and highly personalized organs, heal traumatic injuries, even command cancer cells to normalize. With these abilities we could even produce organisms that are superior to the ones naturally created in nature. While some may see this as playing God, it could be a medical miracle to those born with birth defects.
We could even repurpose certain parts of the body to do new tasks. The scientists working with the xenobots were able to repurpose the cilia on the frog. The cilia are essentially tiny hairs that help the frog propel mucous. When the frog’s cells were reorganized to make xenobots the cilia’s new function was to help them to move around. With the ability to repurpose and re-organize cells in an infinite number of combinations we could create new species of bio robots that complete a plethora of tasks that help humanity and the Earth. The creators of the xenobots have mentioned several times that bio robots could be created to remove microplastics and oil from the ocean. You could customize bio robots to do any task. Some other revolutionary tasks these robots could accomplish is clearing clogged arteries in humans and delivering drugs to certain parts of the body.
We are only just now scraping the surface of this technology. The field of bio robotics has only existed for around 5-7 years. Could human obstacles such as cancer, organ failure, pollution, and even mortality be remedied by living robots in the future? Some worry that this technology could threaten humans if we are able to create biological machines that can self heal and reproduce. Could they become a super species that are the most powerful on Earth? It is likely the ultimate goal is to use these discoveries to advance humanity rather than build a robot that would threaten us, but what do you think? Right now the bio robots that exist are made up of only skin cells with no brain or digestive system. If we, one day, create more advanced bio robots with brains and emotions it is likely that we will have to discuss the ethics of such experiments. Should these creatures have rights? Should we even make them at all? Are we taking it too far and essentially “playing God”. Do the benefits outweigh the ethical concerns?What are your thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment below.
University of Vermont Footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBYtBXaxsOw
Tufts University Footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_eLsiAv8w4
Dr. Douglas Blackinston lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqrj-FNdY28&t=2s
Sam Kriegman vid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Dmv9ZLiwg4
CNBC story on reproducing xenobots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYELAmetiA0
WCAX-TV news story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC5tr0HeL3s
Michael Levin Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XheAMrS8Q1c