Scientists create the first 'living robots' that can survive for a week and heal themselves

Measuring only 1 millimeter wide, these robots can pull off hefty operations, from transporting medicine around a patient’s body to cleaning up pollution from the oceans, say researchers.


                            Scientists create the first 'living robots' that can survive for a week and heal themselves
A manufactured organism, 650-750 microns in diameter, these robots are a bit smaller than a pinhead. (Douglas Blackiston, Tufts University.)

Scientists have created the world's first "living robots" from the cells of a frog's embryo. These robots come equipped with a superpower: the ability to heal itself, if it were to sustain cuts or injuries, say scientists.

But these robots look nothing like frogs. Instead, they resemble blobs. Measuring only 1 millimeter wide, these robots can pull off hefty operations, from transporting medicine around a patient’s body to cleaning up pollution from the oceans, say researchers. And they can survive for a week. "These are novel living machines. They are neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It is a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism," says Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont who co-led the new research, in a statement.

To construct the robot, the team collected stem cells from the embryos of African frogs. Stem cells are capable of giving rise to different cells in the body. After scraping these cells from the embryo, the supercomputer took over: it came up with body-form designs.

On the left is the anatomical blueprint designed by the computer. On the right is the living organism, built entirely from frog skin (green) and heart muscle (red) cells. Sam Kriegman, UVM

Next, scientists carefully joined these cells together under a microscope, making its body appear closer to the computer's design. With this in place, the cells began to work together. The robot's heart muscle cells helped the robot move around. These robots are environment-friendly. Though other strong and flexible alternatives like steel, concrete or plastic exist, they are known to endanger the environment and human health, say scientists.

"The downside of living tissue is that it is weak and it degrades. That is why we use steel. But organisms have 4.5 billion years of practice at regenerating themselves and going on for decades," explains Bongard.

And when organisms stop working, they die and usually fall apart harmlessly. Similarly, these robots are designed to perish soon after it accomplishes its task. After seven  days, they are just dead skin cells, adds Bongard. To survive a week, the robots do not have to be externally fed: they already contain their own food source of lipid and protein deposits. These robots can neither reproduce nor evolve.

"If we could make 3D biological form on demand, we could repair birth defects, reprogram tumors into normal tissue, regenerate after traumatic injury or degenerative disease, and defeat aging," says the researcher team.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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