Living robots made from frog stem cells may revolutionize medicine

Freya Hutchings
January 21st 2020

At just a millimeter wide, Xenobots are “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal", they are "a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism”, says researcher Joshua Bongard in a recent press release. The unprecedented life forms were made using stem cells harvested from the embryos of an African frog species, Xenopus Laevis. The cells were then reconfigured and manipulated by scientists to perform various tasks, with enlightening results. The tiny organisms hold huge promise for the medical sciences, and could be the start of using “bespoke living systems” to maintain the future of human health.

Footage of Xenobots from the University of Vermont

How are Xenobots made, and what are the possibilities?

The design process of the Xenobots began at the University of Vermont, where a supercomputer was used to create possible configurations of different frog stem cells. Experimentation continued at Tufts University, where the cells were collected and separated to develop more specialized cells. Biologists then manually shaped the modified cells into clumps that matched the computer designs. Various remodels of the organisms were conducted to explore the different functions and capabilities of cell groups. 

Proving they can also walk the walk, the Xenobots are able to perform specific tasks; they can self-repair as well as carry and push objects in certain directions. One organism, when flipped upside down, is able to turn itself over again.  Moreover, unlike traditional materials used for conventional robots, the Xenobots are bio-compatible and naturally biodegrade. Once they have done their job “they’re just dead skin cells," says Bongard. Indeed, the dynamic capabilities of these organic-tech hybrids have been tipped to transform methods for intelligent drug delivery in human medicine.

Quadruped Xenobot

Questions surrounding the Xenobots

So, framed by the perspective of scientific discovery, the bots seem like logical, harmless solution, right? Well, we must confront the ambiguities too. A range of ethical questions surround these techno-organisms: what right do we have to manipulate living materials, and for what purposes? Who benefits? As living organisms, will their autonomy override human control? When introduced to the body, could unforeseen viruses derail the intentions of their human creators?

Discoveries of this kind lead to important discussions about people’s hopes and fears surrounding the future of technology. In the literal contact zone between the born and the made, the Xenobots balance on the edge of sci-fi nightmare and Utopian possibility; what matters is how we use such discoveries. So, how might we harness complex processes found in nature for uses that represent opportunity rather than fear? We must think carefully about the ethical provisions that guide them, their impact on both humans and non-humans, and include multiple perspectives in decision making.

The future of autonomous systems

When we look at the rapidly changing techno-scientific landscape that surrounds us, it is becoming clear that autonomous systems will play a big part in the future of human experience - the self-driving car being just one example. If nothing else, the Xenobots give us a reference point for important conversations regarding how is best to proceed in a world where developments of this kind are inevitable, and where their potential for good could prove to outweigh our insecurities. It seems that at groundbreaking moments when technological propositions become a reality, the real challenge begins.

For co-leader of the project Michael Levins, it is essential that we do not shy away from the potential of non-human systems: “I think it’s an absolute necessity for society going forward to get a better handle on systems where the outcome is complex...A first step forwards is to explore.” Similarly, Bongard emphasizes the untapped potential of “all of this innate creativity in life”, and how we should seek to understand this creativity on a deeper level, to implement new forms and functions that have the potential to enhance our lives.

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