When you think of robots you most likely picture a metal or plastic device, filled with wires and electronics. However, scientists have figured out how to use cells to create organisms that may be able to complete many jobs. Now, you can also imagine a robot made entirely out of biological cells.
It began with a group of researchers in America. Using a supercomputer, they tested thousands of designs of living things that could perform specific tasks. Of the most promising designs, they attempted to replicate the virtual models with heart and frog cells. In particular, they joined the stem cells taken from a species of African frog, Xenopus laevis. Named xenobots, the result is a robot of only a millimetre across capable of behaving autonomously. Containing specialized cell types that can carry out different roles, the xenobots are close to the definition of an organism.
These robots can move around and perform simple tasks. They can propel themselves along a dish surface using contractions of heart-muscle cells, and groups of robots have been found to work together to gather pellets into piles. Scientists hope to scale up the process to make them do a variety of useful things. For instance, to remove plaque from artery walls or to identify cancer, xenobots from a person’s cells may be injected into the bloodstream. They could even be designed to carry drugs into a human’s body. For the earth, swarms of them could be built to find and digest toxic waste in the environment, such as plastic in the sea.
On the other hand, both practical and ethical problems exist. It takes hours to handcraft each robot, and with no way of feeding itself, they have a lifespan of up to 10 days. If scientists give them reproductive systems, people fear they could escape and interfere with other species. Xenobots being used for hostile purposes such as bioweapons is a possibility and has raised concerns. Still others argue that artificially creating living things is unnatural and is “playing God.”
Ultimately, I think that xenobots have the potential to become extremely useful in areas such as medicine and the environment. However, as research grows, we should carefully write and apply regulations and ethical guidelines to avoid unintended consequences.