Well-Being Medical Advances

World’s first living robots created using frog stem cells

World’s first living robots created using frog stem cells
Douglas Blackiston

Story at a glance

  • The living robots are a combination of heart and skin stem cells from the African clawed frog.
  • The tiny “xenobots” can move on their own for about a week before running out of energy, heal themselves and then break down naturally.
  • Ethical questions about these “new lifeforms” abound, but their potential for applications in medicine or environmental remediation appears great.

Scientists have created the world’s first living robots out of frog stem cells, according to new research. These tiny “new lifeforms” can be programmed to move around or carry and deliver miniature payloads that could one day be medicines inside a patient’s body, the Guardian reports.

The scientists knit skin and heart cells scraped from the embryos of African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) into 3D shapes designed by artificial intelligence to accomplish certain tasks. 

“These are entirely new lifeforms. They have never before existed on Earth,” study co-author Michael Levin told the Guardian. “They are living, programmable organisms.”

The living robots, called “xenobots” after the clawed frog’s Latin name, measure 0.04 inches and have enough energy inside them to keep moving for seven to 10 days before calling it quits.

The squishy robots don’t have the strength and durability of plastic or metal machines, but biology affords them some unique advantages. They can heal themselves if wounded, and when their biological engines run out of fuel the xenobots simply fall apart and decay. This last part is crucial when it comes to potential medical or environmental applications in which leaving behind shards of plastic or metal presents obvious problems. 

The researchers said we can’t know for sure what applications await the soft-bodied bots, but imagined uses including cleaning up microplastics in the ocean, digesting toxic materials at polluted sites or scooping plaque from inside human arteries. Apart from scooting around in petri dishes, the researchers also say tinkering with these living machines could help scientists better understand “the software of life.”

The first generation of xenobots are tiny, but the scientists say the plan is to scale up — perhaps even to living robots with blood vessels and nervous systems that can live on dry land.

If the voice of Jeff Goldblum’s character from Jurassic Park is beginning to echo in the back of your mind, you’re not alone: “When you’re creating life, you don’t have a good sense of what direction it’s going to take,” Nita Farahany, who studies the ethics of new technologies and was not involved in the study, told Smithsonian. “Any time we try to harness life … [we should] recognize its potential to go really poorly.”

For their part, the creators of the xenobots acknowledged the potential ethical implications, but say it’s up to society and policymakers to decide what those might be. 

“I think they’d acquire moral significance only if they included neural tissue that enabled some kind of mental life, such as the ability to experience pain,” ethicist Thomas Douglas told the Guardian. “But some are more liberal about moral status. They think that all living creatures have interests that should be given some moral consideration. For these people, difficult questions could arise about whether these xenobots should be classified as living creatures or machines.”