Self-healing ‘living’ robots made from frog cells could clean the world’s oceans

The small robots can propel themselves with tiny microscopic hairs (Photo: Tufts University/University of Vermont)

Swarms of tiny living robots that can repair themselves and don’t need electricity have been crafted by researchers.

The microscopic machines, known as xenobots (named after the Xenopus laevis species they originate from), were extracted from day-old frog embryos, and naturally formed into the shape of small spheres.

Propelled by hair-like structures on the surface of the cells, the xenobots can swim around quickly in biological environments and live for up to two weeks.

As well performing simple tasks in a swarm, like pushing around microscopic bits of material, xenobots also appear able to ‘sense’ their environment, by turning red when exposed to blue light.

Researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts designed the miniature living robots using computers which can configure how the xenobots perform as a group.

‘The fundamental finding here is that when you liberate skin cells from their normal context, and you give them a chance to reimagine their multicellularity, they can build other things than what they normally build,’ lead researcher Michael Levin told New Scientist.

The robots work together to perform simple tasks (Photo: Tufts University/University of Vermont)

‘To me, one of the most exciting things here is plasticity. This idea that even normal cells, not genetically modified, with a normal frog genome, are in fact capable of building something completely different.’

Though the idea of living robot swarms may sound objectively terrifying, these robots are so small and specialised they’re unlikely to ever pose a threat to humanity.

The xenobots are no bigger than half a millimetre and work in groups to perform simple tasks designed by researchers, like moving around or collecting matter. The tiny robots could one day be used to clean up biological waste or microplastics in the ocean.

There’s no need to worry about potential waste either, because the xenobots are completely biodegradable, making them suitable for biomedical applications, too.

The miniature robots naturally formed into a sphere shape (Photo: Tufts University/University of Vermont)

‘Roboticists have been looking at swarm intelligence for a long time, biologists have been studying swarm intelligence in organisms. This is something in between, which I think is kind of interesting,’ said xenobot team member Josh Bongard.

‘It sort of suggests, to me at least as a roboticist, is this a better path to making swarms of useful machines than it is to make swarms out of traditional robotic parts?’

Medical ethicists appear more comfortable with the concept of a living robot in the form of a xenobot, because it only uses living cells, unlike previous experiments like a wirelessly controlled cockroach.

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