Biotechnology: use frog cells to design microrrobots

These "xenobots" could be used to supply medications and clean the oceans.

A team of scientists has managed to build millimetric “live robots”, assembled from frog cells and that could be used to supply medicines, clean toxic waste or collect microplastics in the oceans.

The description of these "xenobots" is published in an article in the PNAS magazine, led by scientists from the universities of Vermont and Tufts, both in the United States.

The former designed these "new creatures" through operations on a supercomputer and the latter were responsible for assembling and testing them; It is the first time that completely biological machines are designed from scratch, according to the team responsible.

These are “new live machines,” Joshua Bongard, one of its leaders and robotics and computing expert at the University of Vermont, said in a statement: “They are neither traditional robots nor an already known animal species, but a new artifact class, a living and programmable organism. ”

"We can imagine many useful applications for these live robots that other machines cannot do," said Michael Levin, another of the signers of this article and director of the Center for Regenerative Biology and Development of Tufts, who, among them, It lists looking for polluting compounds, collecting microplastics in the oceans or traveling in human arteries.

The researchers began using an evolutionary algorithm - those based on the postulates of biological evolution - to create thousands of possible designs for these new life forms.

Then they applied basic biophysics rules to establish what the skin or heart cells could do and stayed with those more successful simulated organisms and the rest was discarded.

Máquinas biológicas programadas. (Ilustración: El Comercio)

Then, Tufts biologists transferred these designs to life: they first collected “harvested” stem cells from African frog embryos, specifically the “Xenopus laevis” species - hence the name of the “xenobots” -; then they separated them into individual cells and let them incubate, the statement continues.

Later, with the help of tiny tweezers and an even smaller electrode, the cells were cut and joined again under the microscope, copying the models obtained in the supercomputer.

Assembled in “bodily forms never seen before” in nature, the cells began to work together, the researchers said, explaining that the skin cells formed a more passive architecture, while those of the heart muscle were put to work creating a forward movement more orderly, just as the algorithms had designed.

All this, they added, helped by spontaneous patterns of self-organization, allowing robots to move on their own.

These robots are also totally biodegradable: when they finish their work after seven days they are only dead skin cells.

“You look at the cells with which we have been building our xenobots and, genomically, they are frogs; It's one hundred percent frog DNA ... but it's not frogs, ”said Levin, who wondered what else these cells are capable of doing.

And it is that building these xenobots - which will continue to develop - is a small step to decipher what this researcher calls “morphogenetic code”, which provides a deeper overview, in a general way, of how organisms are organized and how they compute and store information Based on their stories and environment.


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