Living Robots Poised to Advance Modern Medicine

By Genni Burkhart

Made from organic material, scientists have created a new class of living robots called xenobots. Seemingly derived from a book of fiction, these robotic devices are made from the embryonic skin and heart cells of frogs. Based on very real science, they get their name from the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, whose stem cells are used to make these unique living robots.

Developed by scientists from Tufts University and the University of Vermont, these first-ever living robots are particularly tiny creatures at less than one millimeter wide. But don’t let their small size diminish their abilities—xenobots can walk and swim and survive for weeks without food. While they cannot evolve or reproduce, they can heal themselves when injured.

Despite being described as “programmable living robots,” they’re actually made from organic tissue. The term "robot" is used to describe xenobots because they can be configured and programmed into different shapes to target specific objects, which they will inadvertently seek out.

These hybrid micro-creatures were designed on a supercomputer at UVM and then assembled and tested by biologists at Tufts University. As quoted at UVM Today, co-leader Michael Levin, Director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University states, “We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can't do. Like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering microplastic in the oceans, traveling in arteries to scrape out plaque."

Benefits to Human Health

While their abilities seem to come straight out of sci-fi fantasy, the creation of xenobots is legitimate science, and the vast theoretical uses of xenobots are compelling in medicine. In addition to unclogging coronary arteries, these living robots could repair birth defects, reprogram the tissue of tumors, and regenerate human tissue after disease or trauma. Researchers have also expressed theories that these robots could become capable of combating the effects of aging.

Given their seemingly remarkable potential, researchers have been fast at work studying the many benefits xenobots could have to human health. Because of their miniature size, they could be ideal at targeting and transporting medicine into the human body or carrying out instructions to clear plaque from arteries.

The Future of Dental Health

What if, in the future, a trip to the dentist could avoid the somewhat unpleasant and time-consuming task that involves mechanical tools to remove plaque from teeth? Xenobots could simply be deployed to precisely and non-invasively remove plaque and buildup in less time and with greater productivity.

A team of researchers, biologists, and dentists at the University of Pennsylvania developed just such a team of robotic cleaners. While their study didn’t involve xenobots, the concept of robotics was utilized to create two systems, one designed to work on surfaces and the other to move inside confined, small spaces aimed at destroying biofilms. These robotic biofilm-removal systems provide an exciting new potential in dental health and how the operatory stays sterile and clean.

Their work was published in Science Robotics, and led by Hyun (Michel) Koo of the School of Dental Medicine and Edward Steager of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Xenopus laevis
The African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis

In the quest to advance modern medicine, applying xenobots to dental health could elevate the profession to a higher level of care. Through the symbiotic use of science and medicine, xenobots have a slight edge on current technologies made of plastic or metal.

The Ethics in This Science

Researchers Dr. Levin and Dr. Blackiston, who developed these living robots, emphasize their interests are primarily focused on using xenobots as experimental tools aimed at uncovering basic biological and philosophical principles.

In an article by the New York Times, Dr. Levin of Tufts University states that he regularly consults with an ethicist at Harvard’s Wyss Institute. Dr. Levin points out that research using frogs and their embryos already falls under ethical oversight, and that other living, adaptive systems such as treatment-resistant bacteria are, “more advanced and dangerous than xenobots. To be worried about xenobots, in a world where we already have both natural and human-designed pathogens, is just nuts,” he says.

The research this team is doing with xenobots is just beginning. Their work will continue to explore how these organisms behave with artificial intelligence and living cells. It will be exciting to watch this science evolve over the coming years, as these living robots have a promising potential to accelerate our understanding of the human body, the progression of disease and the limitless potential of modern medicine.


About the Author: With over 10 years as a published journalist, editor and writer Genni Burkhart’s career has spanned across politics, healthcare, law, business finance, and news. She resides on the western shores of the Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.

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