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Someone just built microscopic robots from living cells, and it’s Westworld-level creepy

By Elizabeth Rayne

The androids on Westworld (above) may be made of eerily fleshlike materials, but still have computerized metal guts. Nightmarish enough? Scientists have now gone even further than that.

While the bio-bots developed from embryonic frog cells by Sam Kriegman, Joshua Bongard, and colleagues are nothing humanoid, and may be invisible to the naked eye, they have one up on anything Delos Incorporated can come up with. These xenobots (named after their parent frog species Xenopus laevis) are a technological and medical breakthrough because they can do things that would have been unimaginable even to people who watch a show about droids that are already too human. Those droids may be reprogrammable — but not so much as these microscopic xenobots.

Bongard and Kriegman’s combined team, from the University of Vermont and Tufts University, believes that these organisms could accomplish tasks that would be impossible for anything made out of metal or plastic or silicone.

Instead of synthetic creations, it is “useful to build technologies using self-renewing and biocompatible materials, of which the ideal candidates are living systems themselves”, as they said in a study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), adding that “living systems exhibit robustness of structure and function and thus tend to resist adopting the new behaviors imposed on them.”

These “bespoke living systems”, as Bongard, Kriegman and colleagues call them, are even more advanced than organoids like the human brains growing in petri dishes. No matter how realistic you make a soft robot like the ones in HBO’s futuristic Wild West theme park, there are some things even technology that advanced can’t do. Xenobots have the potential to carry out such lifesaving tasks as delivering medicine to the right organs in a person’s body or cleaning the plaque out of clogged arteries.

To create the unthinkable, the team created initial designs on a computer and had to work with microsurgery forceps and a micro-electrode to reshape the embryonic tissue in ways that would suit certain purposes. It was a process of trial and error in which designs were passed through a build filter that determined which performed better. Those were kept around, while the lesser performers were deleted and rewritten. What resulted were neither organoids or organisms but something completely different—living cells that could be “programmed” to do what the scientists wanted them to and then released inside the body.

“The final product of this procedure is a living, 3D approximation of the evolved design, which possesses the ability to self-locomote and explore an aqueous environment for a period of days or weeks without additional nutrients,” explained Kriegman and Bongard.

Design variants of xenobots included those made from heart tissue, which could contract on their own, and some that were crafted to have a hole in the middle so they could more easily transport solid medicine exactly where the body would need it. Frogs won’t always need to supply the raw materials for living bots. Eventually, these bots could be made from human cells taken directly from the patient’s body and “programmed” for the treatment at hand. They can regenerate, unlike artificial robots, and work together to complete a task. That’s a lot to ask from something without a brain or even a nervous system.

“[These] reconfigurable organisms not only self-maintain their externally imposed configuration, but they also self-repair in the face of damage, such as automatically closing lacerations,” Kriegman and Bongard said.

Xenobots also don’t run the risk of being rejected by the body like plastics and other synthetics. These things can survive for days or weeks inside a living environment, and when their task is done and they die, they can simply disintegrate like the dead tissue they are.

Just in case you didn’t believe science can get freakier than TV, this is (literally) living proof.

(via University of Vermont/PNAS)

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