Scientists Use Frog Stem Cells to Create First 'Living Robots'

Researchers at Tufts University and the University of Vermont have built what they say are the “first living robots”, using stem cells from frogs.

The tiny machines, about the size of a pinhead, are called “xenobots” after the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevi) from which the stem cells were taken. Researchers say they can move toward a target, pick up a payload, and heal themselves.

The bots, the researchers said, offer potential advances in areas ranging “from drug delivery to toxic waste clean-up”.

The new creatures were designed on a supercomputer at the University of Vermont, and then assembled and tested by biologists at Tufts University. “We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can’t do,” said project co-leader Michael Levin, director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts, “like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering microplastic in the oceans, traveling in arteries to scrape out plaque.”

Details of the research were published on January 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Living systems are more robust, diverse, complex, and supportive of human life than any technology yet created,” the PNAS article says. “However, our ability to create novel lifeforms is currently limited to varying existing organisms or bioengineering organoids in vitro. [W]e show a scalable pipeline for creating functional novel lifeforms: AI methods automatically design diverse candidate lifeforms in silico to perform some desired function, and transferable designs are then created using a cell-based construction toolkit to realize living systems with the predicted behaviors. Although some steps in this pipeline still require manual intervention, complete automation in future would pave the way to designing and deploying unique, bespoke living systems for a wide range of functions.” Credit: Kriegman et al/PNAS via Storyful