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Tags: science | reproduction | cells | organisms

Living Robots 'Reproducing' on Their Own

a microscope
(Getty Images)

By    |   Monday, 29 November 2021 10:07 PM

It’s not science fiction anymore.

The University of Vermont announced Monday that a team of scientists from that school, Tufts University, and the Wyss Institute for Biology at Harvard University have developed living “Xenobots” that replicate on their own.

“With the right design — they will spontaneously self-replicate,” Joshua Bongard, Ph.D., a computer scientist, and robotics expert at the University of Vermont who co-led the new research said in the announcement Monday.

The team used frog cells in 2020 to “build” these computer-designed, hand-assembled, Xenobots that spend their time swimming around a small dish, gathering hundreds of single cells which mass together and “replicate” into copies of the “parent” organism.

These new organisms then repeat the process, making more copies, according to the press release.

The initial Xenobot cells are embryonic cells from the Xenopus laevis frog that would normally form the skin, according to biology Professor Michael Levin, Ph.D., who serves director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University.

“They would be sitting on the outside of a tadpole, keeping out pathogens and redistributing mucus,” Levin, who is a co-leader of the research and an associate professor at Tufts, said. “But we’re putting them into a novel context. We’re giving them a chance to reimagine their multicellularity.”

Douglas Blackiston, Ph.D., the senior scientist at Tufts University and the Wyss Institute who assembled the Xenobot “parents” and developed the biological portion of the new study, said that this is a way of reproduction not seen before.

“People have thought for quite a long time that we’ve worked out all the ways that life can reproduce or replicate,” he said. “But this is something that’s never been observed before.”

The “parent” organisms circle around inside the dish, using their “mouth” to gather hundreds of single cells that mass together during several days to form the replication of themselves in a new organism, that then does the same thing.

“This is profound,” Levin said. “These cells have the genome of a frog, but, freed from becoming tadpoles, they use their collective intelligence, a plasticity, to do something astounding.”

The scientists said they were first surprised that in earlier experiments, the organisms could be designed to do specific tasks, like gather single stem cells, but nothing prepared them when these computer-designed collection of cells began replicating spontaneously.

“We have the full, unaltered frog genome,” Levin said, “But it gave no hint that these cells can work together on this new task (of replicating).”

Bongard said that the scientists understand the concern some may have of a manmade creation reproducing, but these experiments contain only millimeter-sized organisms that can quickly be extinguished in the laboratory.

“We are working to understand this property: replication. The world and technologies are rapidly changing. It’s important, for society as a whole, that we study and understand how this works,” he said. “(These organisms) are not what keep me awake at night. What presents risk is the next pandemic; accelerating ecosystem damage from pollution; intensifying threats from climate change. 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.”

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It's not science fiction anymore.The University of Vermont announced Monday that a team of scientists from that school, Tufts University, and the Wyss Institute for Biology at Harvard University have developed living "Xenobots" that replicate on their own.
science, reproduction, cells, organisms
532
2021-07-29
Monday, 29 November 2021 10:07 PM
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