The Paper Cut

The Xenobot- A New Life Form


Jordan Myers, Reporter

In a study conducted by the University of Vermont and Tufts University in Massachusetts, scientists have successfully created the world’s first living and self-healing robots using clumps of stem cells from a species of frog. Named after the African clawed frog (xenopus laevis) the Xenobots are able to move around using cilia present on their surface, navigate aquatic environment in diverse ways, heal after damage, and they have also shown their own group behaviors.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the ability to develop into different cell types. The researchers scraped living stem cells from frog embryos, and left them to incubate. Then, the cells were cut and reshaped into specific “body forms” designed by a supercomputer — forms “never seen in nature,” according to a news release from the University of Vermont.

After being incubated, the cells of frog skin began to form with cells that, in another life, might have helped an amphibian’s heart beat. They’re the perfect strangers: biological entities that, up until this point, had no business being together. And yet, Levin and his colleagues have found that skin cells and heart cells can be coaxed into coalescing. Placed side by side, they will self-organize into intricate, three-dimensional mosaics of frog cells that aren’t actually frogs.

xenobot 1
A “living machine” containing frog stem cells in a new configuration designed by a computer algorithm. Parts shown in green are made up of frog skin cells, while parts in red are frog heart cells. (Kriegman, 2020)

Designed by a computer algorithm and surgically shaped by human hands, these skin-heart hybrids, each roughly the size of a grain of sand, don’t resemble anything found in nature. But the tasks they accomplish are eerily familiar. Without any external input, they can zoom around Petri dishes, push microscopic objects around, and even stitch themselves back together after being cut. Small enough to travel inside of human bodies, they are exactly (0.04 inches) wide and are able to survive weeks without food, but similar to humans, they enjoy feasting on sugar.

“In a frog embryo, cells cooperate to create a tadpole. Here, removed from that context, we see that cells can re-purpose their genetically encoded hardware, like cilia, for new functions such as locomotion. It is amazing that cells can spontaneously take on new roles and create new body plans and behaviors without long periods of evolutionary selection for those features,” said Michael Levin, Distinguished Professor of Biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University.

In a TED Talk, professor Levin describes not only the remarkable potential for tiny biological robots to carry out useful tasks in the environment or potentially in therapeutic applications, but he also points out what may be the most valuable benefit of this research – using the bots to understand how individual cells come together, communicate, and specialize to create a larger organism, as they do in nature to create a frog or human. It’s a new model system that can provide a foundation for regenerative medicine.



About the Writer
Photo of Jordan Myers
Jordan Myers, Reporter

Jordan Myers is a reporter for The Paper Cut, a junior at Sahuaro High School, and has been a part of the newspaper for three years. In his time away...

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The Xenobot- A New Life Form