Tiny living robots made from frog cells could soon swim inside your body

The xenobots aren't quite an animal, and they're not a traditional robot, but they are both awesome and terrifying.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
3 min read

A living robot made of frog embryo cells in the process of creation under a microscope

Douglas Blackiston, Tufts University/video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

Tiny robots created from living cells may soon be swimming around your body if the prototypes created in a lab reach their full potential. 

Researchers from the University of Vermont and Tufts University used a supercomputer to design new life-forms using skin and heart cells from frogs. Once they had a design they thought would achieve a goal like moving forward in one direction, they harvested stem cells from frog embryos, incubated mature cells from them and then cut and joined them to create a biological model of what the supercomputer drew up.

What resulted were basically clumps of frog cells with a cluster of pumping cardiac cells on one end acting like the motor on a boat to propel the clump forward through water.

"These are novel living machines," University of Vermont robotics expert Joshua Bongard, who co-led the new research, said in a statement. "They're neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It's a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism."  

The tiny robots move pretty slowly, so to verify they were actually functioning as designed, the researchers flipped them over on their backs. This made them stop moving forward, just like a turtle flipped on the back of its shell. 

The team created a number of the living robots and watched as they were able to push other objects around. The researchers also experimented with creating a pouch inside the new life-forms, allowing them to carry a payload around. 

"We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can't do," said co-leader Michael Levin, who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts. "Like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering microplastic in the oceans (or) traveling in arteries to scrape out plaque."

Tufts microsurgeon Douglas Blackiston helped create the so-called "xenobots" (named for the species of African frog, Xenopis laevis, that was used) using tiny forceps and an even tinier electrode. A time lapse of the whole process was captured in the video above.

A paper detailing the research was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Building living robots comes with a few advantages. While they may not be as strong as metal, concrete or plastic bots, they are fully biodegradable and able to heal themselves. 

"We sliced the robot almost in half and it stitches itself back up and keeps going," Bongard said. 

The notion of living robots might conjure up all kinds of apocalyptic nightmares of unwanted intruders attacking us from the inside, something the researchers acknowledge.

"That fear is not unreasonable ... When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don't understand, we're going to get unintended consequences," Levin said, adding that he sees their work as a step toward better understanding those systems. "This study is a direct contribution to getting a handle on what people are afraid of."

Working through potential unintended consequences is important, but it's the combination of malicious intent and tiny new tools that can navigate the bloodstream that's likely to keep many people up at night. Looks like there could be a market for someone who can create a personal detector for unwanted xenobots in your body...

Originally published Jan. 13 at 12 p.m. PT.

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