Cellular biology allows us to understand with more precision how life functions from the most basic unit of a cell, to a human’s overall physiology. The field provides the scientific community with a breadth of knowledge that can be applied to help develop new vaccines, provide identification of molecular causes of diseases, and offer understanding in regards to cellular mechanisms of the brain. Recently, the force of scientific discovery has approached a very exciting milestone in cellular biology, the development of the first “living robot”.
People are calling it the Xenobot. These millimeter-wide micromachines are considered the world’s first programmable organisms having the potential to deliver medicine to targeted regions of the body, scrape plaque from arteries, and even clean the world’s oceans of polluted microplastics.
What exactly are the characteristics of Xenobots that give them such promise in solving a myriad of different problems faced by the modern world? The endeavor of developing a micromachine required the use of a supercomputer called Deep Green at the University of Vermont. Deep Green implemented an evolutionary algorithm that generated thousands of candidate designs. The parameters of the algorithm follow the laws of cellular biophysics, as well as ensuring that the potential “xenobots”, would be able to perform a designated task. For this experiment, the specific task was locomotion. The top-performing designs were sent over to Tufts University for assembly. Interestingly enough, biologists at Tufts harvested stem cells from the embryo of the Xenopus laevis frog species (hence the nomenclature). Because of the dynamic nature of stem cells, these cells were able to be grown into heart and skin cells. The team performed microsurgery on these cells in order to create the Xenobot organisms.
Heart cells convulsing in unison give the Xenobot the mechanics to propel itself forward, thus achieving the task of locomotion.
The first functional living organism prototype successfully performed its simple task; this is more significant than many people realize. The discovery of a process that can synthesize micromachines such as the Xenobot will lay the foundation for future, more complicated ‘living robots’ that can serve a multitude of functions in physiological repair, medicinal transport, and environmental recovery.