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The first living robots make copies of themselves

Xenobots, born from the combination of molecular biology and AI, could be used in regenerative medicine or for the collection of microplastics in the oceans

At the beginning of last year, a team of researchers from the University of Vermont, in the United States, announced the creation of the first living robots called ‘xenobots’. They are less than a millimeter wide and are made from stem cells from the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis).

The first biological robots that replicate

Scientists said that xenobots could move, repair themselves, and even work in groups. A new research claims that they reproduce in a way that has never been seen in animals or plants until now.

One of the study authors, Michael Levin explained that frogs have a normal way of reproducing, but when cells are released from the rest of the embryo and given the opportunity to be in a new environment, they not only discover a new way of moving, but also a new way of making copies of themselves.

Stem cells have the ability to develop into different types of cells. To make the xenobots, the researchers extracted living stem cells from frog embryos and allowed them to incubate, without gene manipulation.

xenobots

The researchers clarified that in no case is it a reproduction mechanism, but replication is the word because it is used for anything that makes copies of itself, including non-living beings, such as computer viruses. Reproduction is a more specific term that refers to certain ways that organisms make copies of themselves. Therefore, this is a totally new form of replication, never seen before in plants or animals, although it is not a form of reproduction.

A new way to replicate

Lead author Josh Bongard said they found that xenobots were initially sphere-shaped and made of about 3,000 cells, and could also replicate. Xenobots used “kinetic replication,” a process that occurs at the molecular level, but has never been observed at the scale of cells or whole organisms.

Bongard also pointed out that most people think that robots are made of metals and ceramics , but it is not so much about what a robot is made of but what it does, which is to act itself.

Researchers tested billions of body shapes to make xenobots more efficient at this type of replication with the help of artificial intelligence. The supercomputer created a ‘C’ shape similar to the 1980s video game Pac-Man.

Using an algorithm that predicted the evolution of groups of cells, they looked for a biological option for these new beings to move. After several weeks, the supercomputer came up with the right combination: heart and skin cells coupled in a specific way. The xenobot was able to find small stem cells in a Petri dish, collect hundreds of them inside its mouth, and days later, the set of cells would become new xenobots.

Bongard’s group believes that this combination of molecular biology and artificial intelligence could be used for humans and the environment such as for the collection of microplastics in the oceans or regenerative medicine.

REFERENCES

A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms

Kinematic self-replication in reconfigurable organisms

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