(CNN) – Scientists have developed the world’s first living, self-healing robots from stem cells from frogs.
The Xenobots, named after the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), from which they take their stem cells, are less than a millimeter (0.04 inch) wide – small enough to move around the human body. They can run and swim, do without food for weeks, and work together in groups.
These are “completely new ways of life,” said the University of Vermont, who did the research with Tufts University’s Allen Discovery Center.
Stem cells are non-specialized cells that can develop into different cell types. The researchers scratched living stem cells from frog embryos and had them incubated. Then the cells were cut and transformed into certain “body shapes” designed by a supercomputer – shapes “never seen in nature,” according to a press release from the University of Vermont.
The cells then started to work independently – skin cells that were connected to a structure, while pulsating cardiac muscle cells allowed the robot to move independently. Xenobots can even heal themselves. When the scientists dismantled a robot, it healed by itself and continued to move.
“These are novel living machines,” said Joshua Bongard, a leading researcher at the University of Vermont, in the press release. “They are neither a traditional robot nor a well-known animal. It is a new class of artifacts: a living, programmable organism.”
Xenobots don’t look like conventional robots – they don’t have shiny gears or robotic arms. Instead, they look more like a tiny lump of moving pink meat. The researchers say that this is deliberate – this “biological machine” can do things that typical robots made of steel and plastic cannot.
Traditional robots “degrade over time and can cause harmful environmental and health side effects,” said researchers in the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the study, xenobots as biological machines are more environmentally friendly and safer for human health.
The Xenobots could potentially be used for a variety of tasks, according to the study, which was partially funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a federal agency that oversees the development of technologies for military use.
Xenobots could be used to remove radioactive waste, collect microplastics in the oceans, transport medication in human bodies, or even travel to our arteries to remove plaque. The Xenobots can survive for days or weeks in an aqueous environment without additional nutrients, making them suitable for internal drug delivery.
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.
“If we could create a biological 3D shape if needed, we could repair birth defects, reprogram tumors into normal tissue, regenerate after traumatic injuries or degenerative diseases, and defeat aging,” the researchers’ website said. This research could “have a massive impact on regenerative medicine (building body parts and inducing regeneration.)”
It may all sound like a dystopian science fiction film, but the researchers say there is no cause for concern.
The organisms are pre-loaded with their own food source for lipid and protein deposits so that they can live a little over a week – but they cannot reproduce or develop. However, in nutrient-rich environments, their lifespan can extend to several weeks.
And although the supercomputer – a powerful piece of artificial intelligence – plays a big role in building these robots, it is “unlikely” that AI could have malicious intentions.
“At the moment, however, it is difficult to see how an AI can produce harmful organisms more easily than a talented biologist with bad intentions,” says the researchers’ website.