In January 2020, researchers from the UniversityTufts and the University of Vermont have developed a method to create tiny biological machines from the eggs of the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis. Nicknamed by xenobots in honor of their animal ancestors, these "living" machines could move independently, push objects and even unite in swarms. It is noteworthy that to create them, scientists used an evolutionary algorithm running on a supercomputer. With it, the team was able to test thousands of potential constructs of various cell configurations, so no genetic engineering is needed. But perhaps the most amazing thing is that a year later, the same team released a new version of the xenobots, which are not only faster, stronger and more capable than ever, but even assemble their own bodies from individual cells.
How did xenobots come about?
So, xenobots are synthetic organisms,which are automatically created by computers to perform predetermined tasks and are built by combining various biological tissues. The world first heard about them in early 2020, but due to the discovery of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the news did not receive due attention at that time. But it was then that the fine line between animal and machine became blurred.
The creation of the first living robots - news fromthe category of science fiction. Judge for yourself - these tiny machines could perform many tasks and actions, including moving themselves and other objects around and demonstrating collective behavior as part of a swarm of such robots (which is an incredibly difficult task).
Today, the creation of a mechanism that performs tasksdriven by artificial intelligence is nothing new. In addition, scientists have long learned to rebuild existing organisms, changing their characteristics, shape or structure. So everything would be very cool, if not for one "but" - all living organisms demonstrate resistance to any outside interference aimed at changing their behavior.
Fortunately, there are embryonic cellswhich have truly amazing properties: they are capable of self-organization, tissue regeneration and development processes (depending on the situation). Competent manipulation of embryonic cells can help scientists create new life forms - no matter how amazing it may seem to us.
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As the authors of the study published injournal Science Robotics, to create xenobots, they took stem cells from frog embryos and allowed them to grow into clusters of several thousand cells, called spheroids... Within a few days, the stem cells developed into skin cells covered with small hair-like projections called cilia that wriggle back and forth.
Typically these structures are used tospreading mucus over the frog's skin. But apart from their usual context, they have taken on a function more similar to that found in microorganisms that use cilia to move, acting like tiny paddles.
“We are seeing remarkable plasticitycellular collectives that build a rudimentary new "body". It is very different from their standard - in this case frogs - despite the presence of a completely normal genome, "- the authors of the work write in a press release of the study.
The researchers note that this process is notdiffers from the usual way of creating a robot, it is just that biological tissue is used to create it. "In a sense, xenobots are designed in the same way as ordinary robots, only we use cells and tissues, and not artificial components, to build a shape and create predictable behavior," the authors of the scientific work write.
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So how to build each individual xenobotBy hand, obviously tedious, the team devised a new approach that works from the bottom up, forcing the xenobots to self-assemble their bodies from individual cells. This approach is more scalable, and the new xenobots are not only faster, live longer, and have rudimentary memory, but they are also better at working together.
And although the form and function of the xenobots has been achievedwithout any genetic engineering, in an additional experiment, the team injected them with RNA, which made them produce a fluorescent protein. This, according to scientists, serves as proof that xenobots can possess molecular memory. But why would anyone want to create something like this at all?
First, robots made from stem cellscompletely biodegradable and capable of self-healing in just five minutes (if cut), secondly, they can take advantage of the ability of cells to process all kinds of chemicals. So, xenobots can find use in everything - from therapy to environmental engineering.
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Scientists, in turn, hope to use them,to better understand the processes that allow individual cells to connect and work together. Xenobots can help shed light on how exactly cells - such as those that make up the human body - come together to form a single organism that works as a system.
“From a biological point of view, this approach helpswe need to understand how cells communicate, when they interact with each other during development, and how we can better control these interactions, ”write the creators of the xenobots. As they say, the future is here.