In fiction, robots are often portrayed as powerful machines capable of extraordinary things. Although this once seemed futuristic or even unachievable, scientists in the US have now created a living robot capable of swimming, self-healing and surviving weeks without food.
The robots have been made from the stem cells of an African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) and have been called xenobots because of this. Stem cells are cells that have not yet acquired a specific function and hence have the ability to become any type of cell. The scientists created xenobots by scraping live stem cells from the frog embryos and leaving them to incubate. After a certain incubation period, the cells were reshaped into specific artificial body forms which, though not typically seen in nature, resemble animal cells.
These body forms have been designed by a “supercomputer”. It has the ability to create an organism by arranging cells into different forms.
These xenobots are less than a millimetre wide which makes them the perfect size to travel inside human bodies. The formation of heart muscle cells, which contract and relax at the same time, act like an engine, allow the robot to move on its own. This is a key characteristic when targeting specific areas in the body as it would allow the robot to travel to any place in the body within reach. The healing powers of this organism are also extraordinary as it can heal and keep on moving after an injury.
They are more environmentally friendly as well as safer for human health. This is mainly because, just like any other living matter, they decay once they are dead.
The robot has been described as a living programmable organism which is unlike anything we have ever seen before. This gives great hopes for the future uses of such an organism as it may potentially be used in many aspects of medicine. Some of the designed xenobots had holes in their centre which could potentially be used for the transport of drugs. This would be made possible by the other characteristics of the robot which allow it to survive in aqueous conditions and without food for weeks.
Traditional robots are usually made of steel and plastic. Xenobots are made from cells.
Research is being done into using the robots to clean up radioactive waste or even microplastics from the oceans. Scientists are trying to incorporate a greater variety of cells; a new nervous system for example. However, some people argue that the addition of nerve cells would raises an ethics questions. Robots would have more “human” features such as the feeling of pain. So are they living organisms or machines?
These robots have created some slightly hysterical concern from the general public about a robot invasion. Scientists have reassured that this is not a worry. Xenobots are pre-loaded with their own food source of lipid and protein deposits which means their lifespan is just over a week. More importantly they have no ability to reproduce or evolve. However, the supercomputer which is used to produce them does use artificial intelligence and so it’s intentions have the possibility to change. But for now, all is fine.