Science

World’s first living robots can now reproduce, scientists say

American scientists who created the first living robots say that life forms, known as xenobots, can now reproduce, and in a way that is not seen in plants and animals.

Formed from the stem cells of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) from which it takes its name, xenobots are less than a millimeter (0.04 inches) across. The tiny spots were first unveiled in 2020 after experiments showed they could move, work together in groups, and heal on their own.
Now the scientists who developed them at the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University said they have discovered an entirely new form of biological reproduction unlike any animal or plant known to the world. science.
“It blew me away,” said Michael Levin, professor of biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University, who was a co-lead author of the new research.
“Frogs have a way of reproducing that they normally use, but when you … free (the cells) from the rest of the embryo and give them a chance to figure out how to be in a new environment, they don’t just realize they discover a new way to move, but they also apparently discover a new way to reproduce. ”

Robot or organism?
Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the ability to turn into different types of cells. To make the xenobots, the researchers scraped live stem cells from frog embryos and let them hatch. There is no gene manipulation involved.
“Most people think that robots are made of metals and ceramics, but it’s not so much about what a robot is made of, but what it does, that it acts on its own behalf on behalf of the people,” said Josh. Bongard, professor of computer science and robotics. University of Vermont expert and lead author of the study.
“It’s a robot that way, but it’s also clearly an organism made from genetically unmodified frog cells.”
Bongard said they found that the xenobots, which were initially sphere-shaped and made of around 3,000 cells, could replicate. But it happened on rare occasions and only in specific circumstances. The xenobots used “kinetic replication,” a process that is known to occur at the molecular level but has never before been observed at the scale of cells or whole organisms, Bongard said.
With the help of artificial intelligence, the researchers tested billions of body shapes to make xenobots more effective at this type of replication. The supercomputer came up with a C-shape that looked like Pac-Man, the video game from the 1980s. They discovered that it could find tiny stem cells in a Petri dish, collect hundreds of them inside its mouth, and a few days later, the pack of cells turned into new xenobots.

“The AI didn’t program these machines in the way we usually think about writing code. It shaped and sculpted and came up with this Pac-Man shape,” Bongard said.
“The shape is, in essence, the program. The shape influences how the xenobots behave to amplify this incredibly surprising process.”
The xenobots are very early technology — think of a 1940s computer — and don’t yet have any practical applications. However, this combination of molecular biology and artificial intelligence could potentially be used in a host of tasks in the body and the environment, according to the researchers. This may include things like collecting microplastics in the oceans, inspecting root systems and regenerative medicine.
While the prospect of self-replicating biotechnology could spark concern, the researchers said that the living machines were entirely contained in a lab and easily extinguished, as they are biodegradable and regulated by ethics experts.
The research was partially funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a federal agency that oversees the development of technology for military use.
“There are many things that are possible if we take advantage of this kind of plasticity and ability of cells to solve problems,” Bongard said.

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