Xenobots; ‘the first form of artificial life’

Xenobots; ‘the first form of artificial life’

Scientists at the University of Vermont have developed the first form of artificial life. ‘Xenobots’ are made from frog stem cells and are preprogrammed to perform simple tasks.

“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.
Why are they called xenobots?

They are called ‘xenobots’ after Xenopus laevis, the African frog from which the scientists take the stem cells used to make the robots. The xenobot shapes are designed by a supercomputer called Deep Green. It develops virtual organisms and simulates evolution to find the best candidates for real life creation. The most successful virtual organisms are then created in real life by combining frog’s heart and skins cells and cutting them into the desired form. The result is a preprogrammed custom-designed organism that could be described as the first form of artificial life.

The heart stem cells pulse and allow the xenobots to move around, while the skin cells hold them together. There is no digestive system and they take their energy from a store of lipids that they are provided with when created. This allows them to ‘live’ for about a week.

The xenobots are about the size of a grain of sand and have been designed to perform different tasks such as collecting things or just walking or swimming from A to B.

If we could make 3D biological form on demand, we could repair birth defects, reprogram tumors into normal tissue, regenerate after traumatic injury or degenerative disease, and defeat aging, a massive impact on regenerative medicine (building body parts and inducing regeneration.)

What are the advantages of xenobots over conventional robots ?
  • Biodegradable – Being organic, xenobots are biodegradable.
  • Cheap – They are cheap to make as they don’t use any precious natural materials.
  • Self-healing – Unlike normal robots they are also self-healing.
What could xenobots be used for ?

Scientists have suggested that xenobots could be used to transfer drugs around the body, or to collect plastic in the sea. The xenobots could also be used for military purposes and the project is part-funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a US government body that oversees the development of technology for military use.

Questions and Answers about xenobots:

Q:    What kinds of biological tissues were used to build computer-designed organisms?
A:    Frog skin (green in the above image) and heart muscle (red). Both were derived from cells harvested from blastula stage Xenopus laevis embryos. These tissues naturally develop cilia (waving hairs which enable swimming), but the cilia were removed in the green/red colored organism to producing a walking (instead of swimming) organism.

Q:    How big/small are the organisms?
A:    The red/green colored organism pictured above is about 0.7 millimeters. It was carved from a 10000 cell sphere, and its final geometry contains about 5000 cells.

Q:    What have they been used for?
A:    So far we have built computer-designed organisms that walk, swim, push/carry an object, and work together in groups.

Q:    Why do these count as organisms?
A:    They “live” for about seven days, after which they stop functioning (a positive feature in terms of safety for synthetic biology constructs). Although, like vast numbers of organisms on Earth, they do not contain a brain, they exhibit functional behavior, are able to heal themselves if damaged, and work collectively. They can’t reproduce, but there are naturally occurring organisms that can’t either (e.g. mules). Synthetic living machines push biologists to develop deeper and more rigorous definitions of what an “organism” is. The question of what exactly makes for an organism (given the many colonial, syncitial, microbiome-bearing organisms are found in the natural world) is not an easy one; but these show the kind of coordinated structure and function that are immediately recognizable as belonging to a coherent organism.

Q:    Are these organisms aquatic?
A:    The organisms live in standard freshwater and can survive in temperatures ranging from 40 degrees to 80 degrees fahrenheit.

Q:    Do the organisms eat?
A:    The organisms come pre-loaded with their own food source (lipid and protein deposits) allowing them to live for a little over a week. However if grown in a nutrient rich cell-culture media, their lifespan can be increased to weeks or months.