On the 13th of January 2020, a team of scientist from the University of Vermont published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the results of their research on a new type of ‘’programmable bio-robots’’ called xenobots. This new discovery is as incredible as winning on your favourite online casino and will certainly have as many different uses as what you can do with your prize money. But how were they created and what exactly are those possible applications?
What is the Xenobot?
Made from living cells scraped from the embryos of the Xenopus Laevus, an African frog whose name inspired the technology’s denomination, the living programmable organism started by only existing as an algorithm.
Using the Deep Green supercomputer at UVM’s Vermont Advanced Computer Core, the team which included Joshua Bongard (Computer Sciences), Michael Levin (Director at the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts), Douglas Blackiston (Allen Discovery Center Scientist – Microsurgeon) and Sam Kriegman (lead author and doctoral student), was able to create an algorithm designing new types of life-forms.
The scientists were then able to give the stem cells a specific task to complete and to program simulated cells into the program. The computer would then simulate the evolution of the various types of cells and reassemble them into a multitude of shapes and forms. As the program went on, the failed designs were left off while the more capable cells became more and more refined.
As the experience left the screen into the real world, Douglas Blackiston skill’s as a microsurgeon were needed to reconstruct the simulated cells in the lab. First, the team had to harvest the skin and heart cells from the embryos of the Xenopus Laevis, that were then separated into single cells and left to incubate. From there, the scientists used microscopic forceps and electrodes to cut and join the cells into a close approximation of the computer’s design.
Amazingly, the cells started coming together and forming into never-seen-before shapes as predicted by the supercomputer. The skin cells took on a more passive architecture while the heart muscle cells’ contraction became organized in a way that allowed the xenobot to move on its own.
What could the Xenobot change?
Further testing showed that groups of xenobots would spontaneously and collectively move around in circles and were even able to move pellets to a central location. The implications brought by this discovery could be immense.
One of its first possible application could be in medicine. The researchers were already able to design a pouch in the xenobot that can successfully carry an object, meaning that it could be possible in the future to have a programmable organism to deliver drugs intelligently or to use them use the as a novel vehicle for internal surgery. They could even be programmed to seek out and digest toxic or waste products in the human body and it is possible to imagine that in the future, biobots made from the patient’s own cells could remove plaque from artery walls, identify and differentiate locations in diseases or even spot cancer.
The Xenobot could also achieve great things for the environment. It could for example be programmed to collect microplastics in the ocean or to scavenge for toxins and/or radioactive material in dangerous or confined places.
While the cell is able to stiches itself back up even when cut in almost half, one of the best parts of this technology is that it is fully biodegradable, contrarily to most of what we use today. In about seven days, the xenobot will return to only being dead skin cells and leave no trace.
Today, we face the challenge of creating and setting many ethical boundaries that were imaginable a few decades ago and many are concerned with the implication of rapid technological change, especially biotechnologies. And it while it is true that every scientific advancement has led to questioning, the ones implied by this new technology are immense.
One of the concerns has of course to do with the fact that this technology could maybe be used in a malicious way. What would happen if for example the technology was used in a hostile biological way prohibited under international law? Should the xenobots have biological kill-switches?
And what if anyone was able to create xenobots? How much regulations should be created? Last but not least, what if more advanced forms of xenobots were to cause trouble to existing lifeforms? How should humans respond to that?
While we still don’t have the answer concerning this brand-new technology, one thing is sure: it is here and it works.
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