Sam Kriegman and Douglas Blackiston
The world's first living robots, known as xenobots, have learned how to self-replicate, according to the scientists who developed them.
Xenobots — which are designed by computers and created by hand from the stem cell of the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis, where its name is derived — were introduced to the world in 2020. At the time, scientists announced the organisms were self-healing and could survive for weeks without food, according to CNN.
Now, experts have found that xenobots — which are blob-like in appearance — have the capacity to reproduce in an "entirely new" way, scientists at the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University said Monday in a press release.
Scientists found that the xenobots are able to "gather hundreds" of single cells together and "assemble baby" organisms inside their mouths, which become new and functional xenobots within days, per the press release.
"With the right design—they will spontaneously self-replicate," said Josh Bongard, a computer science professor and robotics expert at the University of Vermont who helped lead the research.
"People have thought for quite a long time that we've worked out all the ways that life can reproduce or replicate. But this is something that's never been observed before," added co-author Douglas Blackiston, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Tufts University and the Wyss Institute.
"This is profound," said Michael Levin, a biology professor and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University. "These cells have the genome of a frog, but, freed from becoming tadpoles, they use their collective intelligence, a plasticity, to do something astounding."
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Although the idea of robots that are able to reproduce on their own may sound frightening, one scientist involved with the research says this does not "keep me awake at night."
"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," Bongard said in the press release, noting that having a better understanding of this kind of self-replicating biotechnology can have many practical uses — including for regenerative medicine.
"If we knew how to tell collections of cells to do what we wanted them to do, ultimately, that's regenerative medicine—that's the solution to traumatic injury, birth defects, cancer, and aging," Bongard added. "All of these different problems are here because we don't know how to predict and control what groups of cells are going to build. Xenobots are a new platform for teaching us."