Xenobot 3.0: third generation bio-robots. And now they are able to self-replicate

Last year, a group of scientists and researchers working at the University of Vermont announced the creation of the first “living machines”, capable of self-assembling from frog embryo stem cells. It was, as we had talked about, the second generation of “Xenobots” whose fundamental difference with the first generation was precisely in the ability to assemble autonomously.

Researchers announce these days the third generation of XenobotsThis they are now able to self-replicate: These peculiar computer-designed, self-assembled organisms can now move around in their “soup”, find individual cells and collect hundreds of them by assembling Xenobot “pups” inside them which, within days , grow and move like “adults”, also preserving their ability to replicate.

Xenobot 3.0: can now replicate itself

Joshua Bongard, computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont and co-lead of the new research project, commented: “With the right design, they self-replicate spontaneously.” The researchers explain that the cells used would spontaneously specialize in the skin but that placing them in a new context gives them the opportunity to “reimagine their multicellularity”.

In particular, the key aspect of the research is that despite possessing a frog’s genome, these cells, once “freed” to become tadpoles, they are able to use a kind of “collective intelligence” to do something completely different and amazing. Researchers had already marveled in previous experiments at the ability to engineer Xenobots to perform simple tasks, and now it was even more amazing to find the ability to self-replicate.

Michael Levin, professor of biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University and co-lead on the new research, points out: “We have the complete, unmodified genome of the frog, which however has provided no clue that these cells can work together in this new task.” The researchers insist that this mode of replication is something biologically new. Kinematic replication known at the level of molecules, but not previously observed at the level of cells or organisms.

The researchers studied which form of Xenobots was the most suitable and efficient in the replication process. “I asked the UVM supercomputer to figure out how to adjust the shape of the initial parents, and the AI ​​came up with some weird designs after months of calculations, including one that looked like Pac-Man. It’s very unintuitive. It Seems very simple, but it’s not something a human engineer could come up with. Why one small mouth? Why not five? We sent the results to Doug and he built these Pac-Man-shaped Xenobot parents. Then those parents built sons, who built grandchildren, who built great-grandchildren, who built great-great-grandchildren.” In other words, proper form made it possible to significantly increase the number of generations.

Risks and fears: the goal is a deeper understanding

The prospect of a self-replicating biotechnology can be received in a variety of ways, from concern to enthusiasm, but the aim of the group of scientists is to arrive at a a better understanding of the mechanism. “We are working to understand this property: replication. The world and technologies are changing rapidly. It is important for society as a whole to study and understand how it works”, emphasizes Bongrad.

Researchers see in these biotechnologies a possible response to the challenges currently facing humanity on several fronts such as pandemic threats, incurable diseases, damage to ecosystems or climate change. “How quickly we can produce solutions is very important. We need to create technology solutions that grow in step with the challenges we face.”

In particular, the research group sees in Xenobots and in the possible new knowledge that can be gained from these projects promising path for regenerative medicine. The ability to “give orders” to cells could open the door to therapeutic approaches that are currently unrealizable, particularly with regard to the treatment of traumatic lesions or degenerative pathologies. “These problems exist because we don’t know how to predict and control which groups of cells are going to form. Xenobots are a new platform that can teach us that,” says Levin.

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