Artificial life: Development of Xenobots, programmable organisms to have far-reaching therapeutic implications

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Published: January 16, 2020 5:45:25 AM

Michel Levin, a lead researcher involved in this development, calls xenobots a ‘new form of life’—neither living organisms nor machines, they are something in between.

Artificial life, Medicinal bioengineering, xenobots, programmable organisms, xenobot technology, embryonic frog cellsBeing non-toxic and having a lifespan of about a week, these could be a novel vehicle for intelligent drug delivery. (Representational image)

Medicinal bioengineering has made tremendous advances in the past year. Nothing, however, compares with the development of xenobots, designed by an evolutionary algorithm and surgically engineered using embryonic stem cells from a frog species, by scientists at the University of Vermont and Tufts University. Michel Levin, a lead researcher involved in this development, calls xenobots a ‘new form of life’—neither living organisms nor machines, they are something in between. While the scientists instructed the algorithm to design living machines, optimised for basic functions like locomotion and manipulating objects, using a few hundred or thousand embryonic frog cells as the raw ingredient, they placed no restrictions on the algorithm regarding how this design was to be created, leaving it free to “explore this infinite space between form and function.” The digital blueprints created after the algorithm cycled through multiple configurations were then manually sculpted, using microsurgery forceps and electrode, to create millimetre-wide clusters of cells capable of picking up and delivering a payload, coalescing temporarily with other such clusters, and even self-repair.

While they are presently incapable of advanced functions, with additional tinkering—the same evolutionary algorithm can be reconfigured to create synthetic morphology that achieves complex novel anatomies—xenobot technology could have far-reaching uses in medicine. Being non-toxic and having a lifespan of about a week, these could be a novel vehicle for intelligent drug delivery. They could also be modified to digest toxic waste products, aiding clearing of arterial blockages, and even identify cancers that current medical technology is unable to do.

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