The fact that various fields of science and technology are developing at a breakneck pace is something almost everyone agrees on. As a real-life example, consider the essential surgeries that can now be performed remotely. Plus, you can enjoy your favourite games at top online casinos on your mobile device, and smart homes allow you to turn on your porch lights remotely. Don’t forget that there are also apps for everything, from monitoring your pacemaker via Bluetooth communication, to finding your soulmate and tracking your exercise routine. There are literally hundreds of ways in which technological and scientific breakthroughs are changing our lives. In fact, many children wouldn’t have been born, and therefore have a life at all, if not for ground-breaking developments in fertility and artificial insemination.
Stem cell and nanotechnology are two areas that have been attracting a lot of attention and research for some time. Now, with xenobots, these fields are coming together in an exciting new way. The latest findings suggest incredible applications in the not-so-distant-future.
A New Type of Organism
Xenobots are perhaps best described as part organic, living thing and part robot. If you’re shocked and slightly confused, that’s understandable – nothing like these tiny wonders has ever been seen before. They’re named for the creature that donates the stem cells used in their creation, the African clawed frog whose scientific name is Xenopus laevis.
Researchers based at the University of Vermont, Harvard University and Tufts University worked together to create the world’s first xenobots, and published their work in the respected scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Project co-leader Joshua Bongard describes the resultant tiny organisms as novel living machines.
The Process of Building the Bots
To physically build the xenobots, living stem cells were scraped from clawed from embryos. They were then separated into single cells, which were left to incubate. The incubated cells were divided into heart and skin cells, which were physically cut and joined together with minute forceps and electrodes.
Special algorithms were used to determine the exact structure that the cells should form when they were joined together. Various designs were run in a virtual world, to identify the structures that would work best in the physical world. Essentially, this means that xenobots couldn’t exist without the designs of these so-called evolutionary algorithms.
With the evolutionary algorithms, however, they could prove very useful. The skin cells provide connection and form, while the heart cells pump which ultimately allows for bot locomotion. They were found to be able to push objects to a central location, self-repair and live for days or event weeks.
Some of the structures feature holes, which could be used as pouches to intelligently deliver medications and other drugs within the body. The only issue was if they were flipped over, as a turtle might be turned onto its shell, in which case they could no longer move.
Possible Xenobot Applications
In addition to the intelligent drug delivery we’ve already mentioned, there’s great potential for xenobots to be used in environmental clean-ups, clearing microplastics and digesting toxic materials before biodegrading themselves. Bongard and his fellow researchers and authors say that there are several other applications for their tiny creations.
For instance, they might even travel through blood vessels to scrape out plaque. The United States Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which oversees the development of technology for use in the military, partially funded the study so uses in military operations are probably being explored.
Investigating Unintended Consequences
As with any work involving stem cells, the xenobots team has faced a certain amount of criticism and the idea of human beings creating life is never one that should be taken lightly. However, these new organisms could be very useful in navigating the world of stem cells and cellular communication. As biophysicist Michael Levin, another of the study’s co-authors explained, the fear in working with complex biological systems is that unintended consequences might occur.
If humanity is to survive into the future, he continues, we need to understand the complex systems – and presumably any consequences that they may have – more. At its heart, Levin concludes, the xenobot research is a direct contribution to doing just that.