Tucked away in the lab of the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, a new form of life was born. And the way it was born was quite unusual too, as it had never been observed before. The parent of the abnormal infant was also newly discovered, just recently in 2020, and was the first “living” robot that could walk and jump all on its own. This is the story of the scientific breakthrough that will change biology and robotics for years to come: reproducing robots, or xenobots.
So what are xenobots, and how can they self-replicate? Last year, the same team of researchers who uncovered the case of the self-replicating robot used skin stem cells from frog embryos (specifically the Xenopus laevis frog, which the robot is named after) to form small clumps. Originally, the embryonic cells would become skin, barring out pathogens and redistributing mucus, but now that they were freed from developing into a tadpole, they instead used their “collective intelligence, as plasticity, to do something astounding,” as Levin, a co-leader of the project, put it. The small clumps would contain about 3000 cells, and could then move around all on their own. Their mobility came from tiny hair-like structures known as cilia. Before, the xenobots were originally an inefficient sphere shape, so researchers wanted to deduce which shape the xenobots would best be. They used an AI-driven program to see this, and the result was a “C” shape, or more commonly known as the Pac-Man shape.
This shape is very efficient at collecting small cells, and it is using the “mouth” that the xenobots are able to reproduce. Dubbed “kinematic self-replication” by the scientists, this form of reproduction is novel for living cells. The robots find the right parts they need to arrange the xenobot, then put them together to create new xenobots! Though the offspring reverted back to the original sphere shape, the kinematic self-replication could last for 4 generations. By corralling small bits and parts of cells together, xenobots were able to produce other xenobots that were also able to move around and reproduce other xenobots. This cycle could be very useful in the future, and is surely being thoroughly investigated to apply use to the real world.
Though some have ethical concerns about the xenobots and others are frightened at their potential to roam around by themselves and cause damage, the robots could be used in the correct way to help humanity. For instance, because of their miniscule size, they could help during careful surgeries and other medical-related instances. They could also be useful in other circumstances where tiny organic robots are needed! No doubt xenobots are a fascinating discovery now, but with researchers relentlessly working hard in the field of science, new inventions are bound to pop up later with the assistance of xenobots and their self-replication