KEY POINTS

  • World's first living robot created from a frog's embryo
  • It has self-healing capability and fully biodegradable
  • The bot can be used for clearing radioactive waste

Scientists at the University of Vermont have created the world’s first living robot using living cells from frog embryos. These tiny artificial living organisms, xenobots, can clear radioactive waste or travel in arteries of a patient to remove any plaque.

The original stem cells were extracted from the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). However, xenobots do not resemble any of the existing amphibian species. These “living machines” measure one millimeter wide and created on a supercomputer at the University of Vermont.

“They're neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It's a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism,” Joshua Bongard, a robotics expert and computer scientist who co-led this research, said.

Since the start of agriculture, people have been conducting research on organisms for human benefit. However, this team of scientists has created entire “biological machines from the ground up.”  

Sam Kriegman, a doctoral student and lead author, used a computer algorithm to design thousands of mockups for these new artificial life-forms. The Deep Green supercomputer at the university’s Vermont Advanced Computing Core was fed tasks by the scientists for the xenobots, such as movement through liquid and muscle strength of their tissues.

The algorithm produced several tiny organisms and the most successful simulations were put aside and further refined, while others were scraped out. After numerous runs of the algorithm, the most-suited designs were used for testing.

Later, the selected designs were brought to life by the study authors. The stem cells were gathered and harvested from the embryos of the frogs. The single cells were separated and put into incubation. Further, these were structured into body forms and the cells began to function.

The skin cells managed to hold the bots together, while the beating heart tissue placed in specific parts of their bodies moved them in water bodies for several days. According to Kriegman, the bots could function without any nutrient and possess self-healing powers.

According to Bongard, the weak nature of live tissues is one of the biggest disadvantages that compels scientists to use steel, plastic or concrete. However, he believes that xenobots are completely biodegradable and once they perform the assigned tasks, after seven days, they will remain “just dead skin cells.”

“We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can't do,” Michael Levin, who works in the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University, said.

Meanwhile, shrinking the gaps between robots and living organisms can raise eyebrows in society. Levin stated that this “fear is not unreasonable.” He added that as humanity furthers into the future, a better understanding of complex properties would stem from simple rules.

Microorganism Fossil This is a 3.465 billion year-old fossil microorganism from Western Australia that was analyzed by researchers. Photo: J. William Schopf/UCLA Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life