I know what you’re thinking, and no, this isn’t the first movie in an action thriller trilogy about robots.

Blurring the lines between nature and computers

A few years ago, humans created computers. That has always been a one-way street. Until now. For the first time ever, computers are helping us create synthetic life from the ground up, and we’re calling this life form xenobots.

What are xenobots?

Xenobots are clusters of 2,000 living cells about a millimetre wide that are capable of amazing feats. The cells used are derived from frog embryos by a process called stem cell differentiation [1]. Cells are extracted from frog embryos (video below) and differentiated into various types of cells, just as our own cells differentiate – when we were an embryo, our stem cells differentiated into heart cells, skin cells, neurons, immune cells, etc.

The process of manufacturing xenobots starts with removal of the outer ectoderm layer of Xenopus frog embryos using microsurgery forceps. Then, a process called tissue reaggregation (clumping of cells into a single mass) sets the stage for the next step – shaping.

The name ‘xenobot’ comes from the frog genus Xenopus that the embryos were isolated from. It helps that ‘xenobot’ also sounds rather mysterious. Xenobots contain no sex organs, brains, stomachs, etc. They live for only a week, feeding on the yolk in each of its cells. Once the cells eat all of their food, they biodegrade.

Computers simulate cell dynamics and movement and automatically create the blueprint for biologists to carve the embryos into xenobots [2]. In the future, this entire process might even be automated, allowing 3-D printers to print living cells into functional xenobots.

Computers create the blueprint for biologists. Courtesy of Sam Kriegman and Josh Bongard, UVM

What can they do?

I said earlier that xenobots are capable of amazing feats. So what does that mean?

They key to their marvel is that different cell types (with different capabilities) can be organized into a mass to produce emergent behavior. For example, heart cells twitch but skin cells don’t. By organizing different active and passive cells types, the xenobot starts performing certain types of behaviors. In the GIF above, the teal cubes are passive skin cells while the green and red ones are active cell types. Together, they are able to produce a xenobot that can “walk”.

Just to blow your minds a little bit: algorithms have produced xenobots with holes in the middle (like a donut) that can collect microscopic scraps and place them into piles. Imagine xenobots being used to sweet up ocean microplastics into a large, collectible ball, after which they decompose. It’s the perfect green solution.

No mechanic required
When computers break, you need to replace a damaged part. That won’t be necessary for xenobots. Not unlike humans, xenobots can take a beating. Lacerations heal themselves, and xenobots can even survive being torn nearly in half.

The future of medicine

One of the most exciting applications of xenobots are in the field of medicine. Xenobots can be programmed to carry and deliver payloads. While research is in its nascent stages, this technology could feasible used to deliver drugs to a specific tumor in a patient. What’s more? Instead of using frog cells, xenobots could be made using a human’s own cells to bypass an adverse immune reaction to the treatment. This xenobots could also be designed to scrape plaque from artery walls to mitigate risks with obesity or heart disease.

The potential is endless and so is the excitement. At times like these, it’s important to step away from the noise and gain some perspective.

A necessary dialogue with ethicists

A few years, we all saw the groundbreaking CRISPR-Cas9 technology that flooded the airwaves. Scientists starting using the tech to see if they could reverse mutations and cure diseases. Before long, we saw this news story [3]:

It is important to recognize that any technology with great potential can be misused. Humans have been guilty of doing this for centuries, if not millennia. As xenobot technology advances, so should the conversation about the ethics.

[1] Tocris Biosciences (link)
[2] Sam Kriegman, Douglas Blackiston, Michael Levin, and Josh Bongard. A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms. PNAS, 2020 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1910837117
[3] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/12/chinese-scientist-who-produced-genetically-altered-babies-sentenced-3-years-jail

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