DEC 03, 2021 4:59 AM PST

Researchers Create Living Robots That Can Self-Replicate

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Biological organisms can reproduce and make more of themselves using a variety of different mechanisms, many of which we understand. Now researchers have found a completely new way for an 'organism' to reproduce itself. In this work, stem cells from Xenopus laevis frog embryos, which would normally develop into skin, were removed from the frogs and put in a salt solution. There, they were freed from their duties in the development of an organism, and on their own, created a system in which the cells reproduced. The work has been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An AI-designed, Pac-Man-shaped

These cells would normally be on tadpole skin, dealing with pathogens and mucus redistribution. “But we’re putting them into a novel context. We’re giving them a chance to reimagine their multicellularity," said co-lead study author Michael Levin, a professor of biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University. Though these cells have a frog's genome, “freed from becoming tadpoles, they use their collective intelligence, a plasticity, to do something astounding.”

The cells don't make skin in that context. About 3,000 of these cells will instead come together to form a sphere, and this system will start generating more cells. “These can make children but then the system normally dies out after that. It’s very hard, actually, to get the system to keep reproducing,” said lead study author Sam Kriegman, PhD. So the researchers turned to a supercomputer to simulate different body shapes, hunting for one that would promote the so-called kinematic replication observed in this study.

All sorts of shapes were tried, like squares, starfish, or just weird stuff. After months, the computer landed on one shaped like Pac-Man. “It’s very non-intuitive. It looks very simple, but it’s not something a human engineer would come up with," said Kriegman. When the research team tested the design, and built Pac-Man xenobots, multiple generations were produced. This is the first time kinematic replication has been seen at the level of an 'organism.'

“We've discovered that there is this previously unknown space within organisms, or living systems, and it's a vast space,” said co-lead study author Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont. “With the right design, they will spontaneously self-replicate.”

“These are frog cells replicating in a way that is very different from how frogs do it. No animal or plant known to science replicates in this way,” said Kriegman.
In 2020, this research team created Xenobots using frog cells to make the first living robots (described in the second video). These hand-assembled organisms could be designed on a computer to carry out tasks. If the actions of a collection of cells could be orchestrated, they might be therapeutically applied to traumatic injury, aging, birth defects, or cancer, noted Levin.

This research can act as a model for self-replicating systems. But this is a small scale and easily controlled model, unlike other self-sustaining systems, such as a pandemic virus or climate change, suggested Bongard. “This is an ideal system in which to study self-replicating systems. We have a moral imperative to understand the conditions under which we can control it, direct it, douse it, exaggerate it.”

Sources: University of Vermont, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
DEC 08, 2021
Genetics & Genomics
GenElute™-E Single Spin DNA and RNA Purification Technology
DEC 08, 2021
GenElute™-E Single Spin DNA and RNA Purification Technology
Scientists in diverse lab settings often seek optimized technologies and methodologies that improve the quality of their ...
DEC 07, 2021
Cell & Molecular Biology
How Some Tissues 'Breathe' When There's No Oxygen
DEC 07, 2021
How Some Tissues 'Breathe' When There's No Oxygen
Whitehead Institute researchers have solved a long-standing mystery about the cell's powerhouse, and the production of A ...
JAN 06, 2022
Immunology
Gene for Smelling Helps Cancer Cells Move to the Brain
JAN 06, 2022
Gene for Smelling Helps Cancer Cells Move to the Brain
From tasting a delicious meal to picking up pheromones, olfaction (or the sense of smell) involves a network of complex ...
JAN 07, 2022
Microbiology
Cells in Bacterial Biofilms Can Form Complex Patterns
JAN 07, 2022
Cells in Bacterial Biofilms Can Form Complex Patterns
These patterns are reminiscent of those seen in animal development, showing that bacteria are capable of more than we th ...
JAN 14, 2022
Genetics & Genomics
Do DNA Mutations Really Occur at Random?
JAN 14, 2022
Do DNA Mutations Really Occur at Random?
Whether they're damaged by injury or disease, or simply conducting the daily maintenance required for life, organisms ha ...
JAN 24, 2022
Cell & Molecular Biology
Honey Bees Could Make Forensic Science More Reliable
JAN 24, 2022
Honey Bees Could Make Forensic Science More Reliable
Most methods used in forensic science have not been independently validated or verified by scientists, but some efforts ...
Loading Comments...