Robots called xenobots constructed as 'living programmable organism'

Computer-designed organisms. Left is simulated design right is deployed physical green and red organism

Aside from these immediate practical tasks, the Xenobots could help researchers learn more about cell biology - opening doors for future advances in human health and longevity.

That the authors describe their creation as "organisms", "living machines" and "lifeforms" is bold, given these artificial creatures can't reproduce, feed themselves or respond to external stimuli, among other requirements for life. For instance, although signaling between cardiomyocytes was not enforced, emergent spontaneous coordination among the cardiac muscle cells produced coherent, phase-matched contractions which aided locomotion in the physically realized designs. The cells - termed xenobots - began to work together much like the supercomputer envisaged and could survive for a week with pre-loaded nutrients. Instead, they look more like a tiny lump of moving pink meat. Finally, these cells were cut and joined together under a microscope in a close approximation of the computer-generated designs. To make this, stem cells of African clawed frog (Xenopus lavis) happen taken, ergo these robots tend to be known as xenobots. A team of researchers from the University of Vermont have successfully designed and built "living" robots using different types of cells scraped from frogs.

The xenobots were designed on a supercomputer at the University of Vermont and then assembled and tested by biologists at Tufts University in MA.

These are "entirely new life-forms", said the University of Vermont, which conducted the research with Tufts University's Allen Discovery Center. To design Xenobots, a supercomputer and an algorithm capable of combining several hundred frog heart and skin cells in different configurations and simulating results were required.

However, it wouldn't have been possible without the designs created through evolutionary algorithms. Despite of having a very low motility, these robots can perform task that other machines can't do, like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering microplastic in the oceans and so on. It's a new class of artifact: "a living, programmable organism", Joshua Bongard, a robotics expert and computer scientist who co-led this research, said.

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Just as the computer had suggested, the robots were able to move on their own, eventually coherently and exploring their environment in a matter of weeks.

In the future their unique feature may enable robotic versions that may be deployed to clean up microplastics from the ocean, locate and digest toxic materials, or deliver drugs in a human body as well as remove plaque from artery walls. Later tests showed they could move around in circles and push pellets into a central location, spontaneously and collectively.

"We cut the living robot nearly in half, and its cells automatically zippered its body back up", he said.

"When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don't understand, we're going to get unintended consequences", Michael Levin, a biophysicist, and co-author of the study said in a press statement. "A first step towards doing that is to explore: how do living systems decide what an overall behaviour should be and how do we manipulate the pieces to get the behaviours we want?"

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