Introducing the First 'Living Robots' Made From Frog Stem Cells
Thu, October 21, 2021

Introducing the First 'Living Robots' Made From Frog Stem Cells

Robotic innovations continue to provide more ways for robots to be incorporated into human life. Usually, these machines are programmed to automate different tasks that were formerly performed by humans / Photo by: iakovenko via 123RF

 

Robotic innovations continue to provide more ways for robots to be incorporated into human life. Usually, these machines are programmed to automate different tasks that were formerly performed by humans. While this brings a lot of issues and criticism, businesses have already invested millions and billions in robots to improve efficiency. Certainly, it’s no secret that these machines are dominating our society. 

The question almost everyone is asking is whether the future will look like “The Terminator,” with self-aware killer robots, or “The Jetsons,” with robotic maids doing all the housework. 

Leftronic.com, an online site that aims to make sure every job seeker gets the chance to apply for the best job positions in the field of technology, reported that the rate of adoption of robotization has tripled in the past 20 years. Currently, there are over 2.25 million robots replacing human labor in the global workforce. The figure is projected to significantly increase by up to 20 million by 2030. 

In the US, approximately 36 million of mundane and repetitive jobs face high risks of automation. It's also been reported that no single job will remain unaffected by technological breakthroughs. Also, US companies in the manufacturing industry utilize nearly 200 robots per 10,000 workers. A 2019 report by the Brookings Institution titled “Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Affect People and Place” revealed that certain jobs will feel the pain of automation more acutely than others.

According to CNBC, the world leader in business news and real-time financial market coverage, many food preparations, transportation, and office administration jobs will be taken over by machines. On the other hand, occupations that require interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence such as highly creative or technical positions and personal care and domestic service jobs are most likely to prevail.

"If your job is boring and repetitive, you're probably at great risk of automation," said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a co-author of the report.

With the current status of the robotics industry, it’s not surprising that scientists and researchers come up with fascinating innovations such as living robots.

Robots Made of Frog Cells

Throughout the years, scientists have created strange robots that show us a glimpse of what kind of world we are entering. From a giant Transformers-style contraption with "machine guns" for arms to a robotic snake that can slither or swim, these robots sort of came from science fiction. The only difference is that they are actually real. 

Recently, computer scientists from the University of Vermont and biophysicists at Tufts University developed the first living machines by repurposing living cells scraped from frog embryos. The stem cells came from the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, which the team assembled into entirely new life-forms. While they came from these cells, these so-called xenobots don't resemble any known amphibians. These tiny robots measure only 0.04 inches (1 millimeter) wide and are designed by computer models. 

According to Live Science, a science news website that features groundbreaking developments in science, space, technology, health, the environment, our culture and history, xenobots can self-heal wounds and survive for weeks at a time. They can move independently and collectively and can even potentially be used to transport medicines inside a patient's body. However, these xenobots can’t eat, can’t reproduce, and only live for about a week. But, they can walk, swim, push or carry objects, and work together in groups. 

Recently, computer scientists from the University of Vermont and biophysicists at Tufts University developed the first living machines by repurposing living cells scraped from frog embryos. The stem cells came from the African clawed frog / Photo by: Ltshears via Wikimedia Commons

 

How Xenobots Were Made

Scientists are used to manipulating organisms for human benefit. Some have experimented with copying the body forms of known animals. However, the team didn’t do that this time. This was the first time that the designs were completely biological machines from the ground up. "These are novel living machines. They're neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It's a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism,” Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont who co-led the new research, said. 

A supercomputer was used to design the new creatures, and then it was built and developed on by biologists. According to Science Daily, an American website that aggregates press releases about science, the researchers used an evolutionary algorithm to create thousands of candidate designs for the new life-forms, which took months of processing time. The algorithms were run a hundred times to keep simulated organisms refined while tossing out the failed designs. 

After this process, the team gathered the stem cells and they were separated into single cells and left to incubate. As the cells began to work together, they formed a more passive architecture, while the once-random contractions of heart muscle cells were put to work. These living robots behave like miniature engines that drive the robots along until their energy reserves run out since heart cells spontaneously contract and relax. 

A supercomputer was used to design the new creatures, and then it was built and developed on by biologists / Photo by: Konstantin Pelikh via 123RF

 

According to The Guardian, a daily British newspaper, the researchers reported that there’s a possibility that xenobots might be built with blood vessels, nervous systems, and sensory cells. They could even live on dry land by building them out of mammalian cells. The team later discovered that the robots can move on their own aided by spontaneous self-organizing patterns. In other simulated versions of these xenobots, the scientists were able to repurpose this hole as a pouch to successfully carry an object. 

"It's a step toward using computer-designed organisms for intelligent drug delivery," Bongard said. 

Aside from being a powerful tool for intelligent drug delivery, the researchers reported that the unique features of xenobots can create new robotic innovations that might be deployed to clean up microplastic pollution in the oceans, locate and digest toxic materials, and more. This is because these living robots can heal their wounds when they are damaged. At the same time, they decay when they die just as natural organisms do once their task is done. 

Michael Levin, the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, stated that the study aimed to achieve more than just developing these living robots. “The aim is to understand the software of life. If you think about birth defects, cancer, age-related diseases, all of these things could be solved if we knew how to make biological structures, to have ultimate control overgrowth and form,” he said. 

These robots show that robotic innovations will expand more in ways we have never thought possible.