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Xenobots: Scientists create a new generation of living bots

It is a new class of artifacts: a living, programmable organism.

This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process. Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
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When we talk about robots, the first images that come to mind are metal and plastic machines, very similar to those we have seen in movies like “ I, robot ” or “ RoboCop ”, for example.

Sam Kriegman vía Wikimedia Commons

However, technological advances in recent years have resulted in scientists not only creating inorganic machines (made of metal and plastic), but also using organic materials , such as stem cells , to create biological machines , that is, living bots .

An example of this are the " Xenobots ", tiny robots manufactured in 2020 by a group of scientists from Tufts University and the University of Vermont from living cells of an African clawed frog called " Xenopus laevis " .

“These are novel living machines. They are not a traditional robot or a known species of animals. It is a new class of artifacts: a living and programmable organism, ”says Joshua Bongard , an expert in computer science and robotics at the University of Vermont (UVM) and one of the leaders of the find.

As the scientist explains, these living bots do not look like traditional robots : they do not have shiny gears or robotic arms. Rather, they look more like a tiny blob of pink meat in motion , a biological machine that researchers say can accomplish things traditional robots cannot.

Xenobots are synthetic organisms designed automatically by a supercomputer to perform a specific task, using a process of trial and error (an evolutionary algorithm ), and are built by a combination of different biological tissues.

These are only 1 mm (0.04 inches) wide and are made up of skin cells and heart muscle cells , which are derived from stem cells collected in embryos of the ' Xenopus laevis ' species. It is the skin cells that provide rigid support, while the heart cells are the ones that act as little motors, contracting and expanding in volume to propel the bots. forward.

These machines are designed to walk, swim, push, carry payloads, work in groups, and even heal themselves after lacerations.

Recently the same group of scientists has presented a new generation of these living bots . The Xenobots 2.0 , as they are known, They are an improved version of Xenobots 1.0.

Like their predecessors, the new living robots can work together in groups and heal themselves. What's new in this new generation is that bots have the ability to close most of a severe, long-length laceration at half its thickness within five minutes of injury. On the other hand, the new Xenobots are faster, navigate different environments, and live longer than their predecessors . But, the great novelty is that they can record information about their environment , which reveals their recordable memory capacity .

“In a way, Xenobots are built like a traditional robot. We only use cells and tissues instead of artificial components to build the shape and create predictable behavior. Biologically, this approach helps us understand how cells communicate as they interact with each other during development, and how we can better control those interactions, ”says study co-author Doug Blackiston.

For his part, the robotics expert, Josh Bongrad , affirms that with these advances he is “ pointing to a new type of living tool. "

According to scientists, Xenobots could in the future be used to clean up radioactive waste, collect microplastics in the oceans, transport drugs inside human bodies, or even travel to our arteries to scrape off plaque.

And it is that one of the most outstanding characteristics of these bots is that they can survive in aqueous environments without additional nutrients for days or weeks, making them suitable for internal drug delivery .

In addition to the tasks mentioned above, Xenobots could also help researchers learn more about cell biology , opening the doors to the advancement of human health and longevity .

For his part, Professor Michael Levin , in addition to highlighting the potential of Xenobots to perform useful tasks in the environment or potentially in therapeutic applications, stresses that there are " very valuable benefits " in this research: using robots to understand how Individual cells come together, communicate, and specialize to create a larger organism, much as they do in nature to create a frog or a human. " It is a model system that can provide a basis for regenerative medicine ," he says.

Another advantage of biological robots, Levin adds, is metabolism . Unlike metal and plastic robots, the cells of a biological robot can absorb and break down chemicals and function like small factories that synthesize and excrete chemicals and proteins. The entire field of synthetic biology , which has focused primarily on reprogramming single-celled organisms to produce useful molecules, can now be exploited in these multicellular creatures.

Although scientists maintain that there is still much to investigate and discover, Xenobots could become a very useful tool to achieve important advances in different fields.