Frog stem cell robots

Recent research published March 31 in Science Robotics says scientists have created organisms unlike anything else on Earth using blobs of skin cells from frog embryos. These small living robots can swim, sweep away dirt, and self-heal after a cut. Jacob Foster, a UCLA collective intelligence researcher who was not engaged in this study,  hails this as a liberating moment in the history of science, a reorientation towards what is possible. The bots were somewhat self-made. 

Development of Xenobots

Researchers took off a few clusters of skin stem cells from frog embryos to observe what these cells would develop into on their own. The cells began to arrange into balls and expand after being removed from their regular locations in a developing frog embryo. The xenobots, or clusters, started to swim around three days later.


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A brainless nerveless creature

Normally, cilia, the hairlike structures on the surface of the frog’s skin repel infections and disperse mucus. The cilia on the xenobots, however, allowed them to move around. According to research coauthor and biologist Michael Levin of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, this unexpected development “is a terrific illustration of life utilizing what’s at hand.” And that procedure moves quickly. This isn’t some kind of impact where evolution over millions of years discovered a new application, claims Levin. Within two or three days, this will occur right before your eyes. Xenobots lack brains and nerve cells. 


Acrobatic Performance without food

Xenobots, each approximately half a millimeter across, can swim through extremely narrow tubes and navigate wavy labyrinths like an acrobat. The xenobots can gather the trash into mounds when placed in an arena covered in tiny iron oxide particles. Even after being cut, Xenobots can mend themselves by zipping back into their spherical forms. The foundations of xenobot life are still being figured out by scientists. The animals can go without food for roughly ten days.

Favorable environment

Xenobots can live longer when given sugar; however, they stop growing. According to Doug Blackiston, another Tufts researcher and paper coauthor, “We’ve grown them for almost four months in the lab.” If you grow them, “they do pretty weird things,” such as taking on odd balloon-like shapes. 

A new opportunity!

What, if any, jobs these xenobots might do are still unknown. According to the researchers, clearing up arteries, streams, and other minor areas comes to mind. More generally, Levin suggests that these species may provide insights into the body structure. According to Kobi Leins, a researcher in digital ethics at the University of Melbourne in Australia, ethical problems arise with the development of new species. She claims that scientists like creating things without always considering the consequences. She asserts that we need to have more discussions regarding unforeseen consequences. But no doubt the research raised broader issues and opportunities in robotics.


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