Microscopic ‘living robots’ made from frog embryo stem cells have memories

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A microscopic ‘living robot’ made from frog embryo stem cells is designed with self-healing powers and the ability to retain memories.

The innovation stems from previous work released last year called Xenobots, but has been upgraded to move more efficiently and perform more complex tasks.

The machines, called Xenobots 2.0, can propel themselves using hair-like ‘legs’ made of cilia, while its predecessor relied on a muscle to move, allowing it to travel faster across surfaces.

The greatest advancement, however, is the ability to recall things like radioactive contamination, chemical pollutants, or a disease state in the body that can be reported to researchers for further analysis.

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A microscopic 'living robot' made from frog embryo stem cells is designed with self-healing powers and the ability to retain memories.  The innovation stems from previous work released last year called Xenobots, but has been upgraded to move more efficiently and perform more complex tasks.

A microscopic ‘living robot’ made from frog embryo stem cells is designed with self-healing powers and the ability to retain memories. The innovation stems from previous work released last year called Xenobots, but has been upgraded to move more efficiently and perform more complex tasks.

Both machines were developed by biologists and computer scientists from Tufts University and the University of Vermont (UVM), who took the name ‘Xenobots’ after the African frog Xenopus Laevis used to collect cells.

The initial bots were programmed to perform a series of tasks, most notably delivering drugs directly to a point in the body.

However, the 2.0 versions have been upgraded to move faster, navigate different environments, and have a longer lifespan, but still have the ability to work together in groups and heal themselves if damaged.

While the Tufts scientists created the physical organisms, UVM scientists were busy running computer simulations that modeled different shapes of the Xenobots to see if they could display different behaviors, both individually and in groups.

The robots are made from stem cells collected 24 hours after they were formed from embryos of the African frog Xenopus Laevis

The robots are made from stem cells collected 24 hours after they were formed from embryos of the African frog Xenopus Laevis

The robots are made from stem cells collected 24 hours after they were formed from embryos of the African frog Xenopus Laevis

The team placed the embryos under a microscope to harvest the cell tissue

The team placed the embryos under a microscope to harvest the cell tissue

The team placed the embryos under a microscope to harvest the cell tissue

UVM’s Josh Bongard said, “When we bring in more capabilities for the bots, we can use the computer simulations to design them with more complex behaviors and the ability to perform more elaborate tasks.

“We could potentially design them to not only report the conditions in their environment, but also to modify and fix the conditions in their environment.”

After the simulations, the team found that the new Xenobots are much faster and more skilled at tasks such as collecting microplastics in water or containers – and it did so much faster than the first version.

‘We know the task, but it is – to people – not at all clear what a successful design should look like. That’s where the supercomputer comes in and searches through the space of all possible Xenobot swarms to find the swarm that does the job best, ”Bongard said.

The tissue then formed into the shape of the living robots, allowing scientists to program them with special skills

The tissue then formed into the shape of the living robots, allowing scientists to program them with special skills

The tissue then formed into the shape of the living robots, allowing scientists to program them with special skills

‘We want Xenobots to do useful work. At the moment we are giving them simple tasks, but ultimately we are striving for a new kind of living resource that can clean up microplastics in the ocean or contaminants in the soil, for example. ‘

The key to a successful robot is its ability to record memory, which it uses to modify its behavior and capabilities.

With that in mind, the Tufts scientists developed the Xenobots with a read and write capability to record one piece of information, using a fluorescent reporter protein called EosFP, which normally glows green.

However, when the protein is exposed to light with a wavelength of 390 nm, it emits red light instead.

The cells of the frog embryos were injected with messenger RNA encoding the EosFP protein before excising stem cells to create the Xenobots.

The adult Xenobots now have a built-in fluorescent switch that can register exposure to blue light around 390 nm. The researchers tested the memory function by having 10 Xenobots swim around a surface on which one spot is illuminated with a beam of 390 nm light.

The machines, called Xenobots 2.0, can propel themselves using hair-like 'legs' made of cilia, while its predecessor relied on a muscle to move, allowing it to travel faster across surfaces.

The machines, called Xenobots 2.0, can propel themselves using hair-like 'legs' made of cilia, while its predecessor relied on a muscle to move, allowing it to travel faster across surfaces.

The machines, called Xenobots 2.0, can propel themselves using hair-like ‘legs’ made of cilia, while its predecessor relied on a muscle to move, allowing it to travel faster across surfaces.

The greatest advancement is the ability to recall things like radioactive contamination, chemical pollutants, or a disease condition in the body that can be reported to researchers for further analysis.  The lighting shows that they are absorbing information

The greatest advancement is the ability to recall things like radioactive contamination, chemical pollutants, or a disease condition in the body that can be reported to researchers for further analysis.  The lighting shows that they are absorbing information

The greatest advancement is the ability to recall things like radioactive contamination, chemical pollutants, or a disease condition in the body that can be reported to researchers for further analysis. The lighting shows that they are absorbing information

After two hours, they discovered that three bots were emitting red light. The rest kept their original green, effectively recording the bots’ ‘travel experience’.

This proof-of-principle of molecular memory could be expanded in the future to not only detect and record light, but also the presence of radioactive contamination, chemical pollutants, drugs, or a disease condition.

Further engineering of the memory function could allow the recording of multiple stimuli (more pieces of information) or allow the bots to release connections or change their behavior when perceiving stimuli.

The ultimate goal for the Tufts and UVM researchers is not only to explore the full scope of biological robots they can create, but also to understand the relationship between the ‘hardware’ of the genome and the ‘software’ of cellular communications involved in creating organized tissues, organs and limbs, the team shared in a statement. ‘

‘Then we can gain more control over that morphogenesis for regenerative medicine and the treatment of cancer and diseases of the elderly.’