Researchers from the Department of Computer Science, University of Vermont and Department of Biology, Tufts University had recently co-created a “Xenobot” or what believed to be the first “living robot” built using cells from frog embryos.

The research team thought using synthetic materials like steel or plastics in machine building will add pressure to our ecosystem especially if some of these constructs do not disintegrate naturally over time. As such, they set their eyes on combining biological tissues and design a machine which has the potential of alleviating environmental challenges or delivery of drugs and removing of plaque from artery walls within human bodies in the near future.

An evolutionary algorithm-driven new life form

They published their work and finding in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week. Researchers said while there are existing methods to design and build living systems, they are mostly single-cell organisms that are not scalable to become a multicellular entity and exhibit behaviors that can be closely controlled by the experimenters. 3D printing and computational approach are gradually changing in vivo machine training and design.

For the millimeter-long Xenobot, it was devised through an evolutionary search method or running an “evolutionary algorithm” on supercomputer so that the machine’s physical structure is generated together with behavior. Specifically, the program would produce random 3D configurations of thousands of skin and heart cells. Each of them would be simulated to contractions and tested virtually to see how far they can move. Cells that yielded the best results were those originally sculpted from the embryos of Xenopus laevis, a kind of African clawed frogs, that leads to researchers naming their creation as “Xenobot”.

According to Michael Levin, Director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University, the research team had created “entirely new lifeforms” that have “never before existed on Earth” and these are “living, programmable organisms”. Ultimately, the research team wishes Xenobot to be fully equipped with its own nervous systems, blood vessels, sensory organs like eyes and features which allow them to live on land.

Possibilities and ethical concerns

Levin added what the research team would like to achieve at the moment is to ensure their creation is not a flimsy one. They wish the Xenobot is a channel for them to understand “the software of life”. “If you think about birth defects, cancer, age-related diseases, all of these things could be solved if we knew how to make biological structures, to have ultimate control over growth and form,” he told British newspaper, The Guardian.

On the other hand, University of Vermont’s PhD student Sam Kriegman said because Xenobot may have selected cognitive capabilities as a result of having a nervous system that renders them a more participatory role in the world, it may trigger some ethical concerns. Kriegman is certain Xenobot will not pose a threat to humankind but he wishes the society and policymaker to decide “the best course of action” for such a “living robot”.

Others, like Thomas Douglas, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics thought difficult questions may arise when we are deciding whether a “living robot” should be regarded as a machine or life. He said Xenobots needed to be given some sort of moral status particularly if it starts to acquire mental life, like the ability to feel pain and in the long run, perhaps there is a need to be “more liberal about moral status”.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.