Researchers create microscopic synthetic life form “xenobot”

by Caleb Obico (’25) | April 8, 2022

Art by Mia Patil (’22)

When people think of the word robot, they typically imagine a metal contraption reminiscent of a sci-fi movie. They may picture intelligent droids or simply a wind-up toy that resembles Wall-E. What people usually do not imagine is a living, breathing machine made out of frog cells, such as the one researchers at the University of Vermont recently created. 

The artificial life form “xenobot,” named after the species of African frog whose cells were used to create the organism (Xenopus Laevis), is essentially a programmable organism that can execute simple tasks. These organisms are made in petri dishes with stem cells as their basic building block. They travel in a corkscrew motion by moving the tiny hairs on their sides known as cilia, which can be useful for picking up other microscopic objects, such as cells.

The bots were designed with the aid of a supercomputer, which helped researchers determine that the cells of the robot should be assembled in a rough “c” shape. This construction allows the robot to scoop up free-floating stem cells and collect them into piles, in which cells naturally combine when sufficiently close together. Additionally, the xenobots demonstrated versatility by self-healing when cut.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the bots so far is their ability to self-replicate in a way previously unseen in nature. Researchers initially created the robots by manually assembling them with stimulating electrodes and tiny tweezers. The xenobots have now learned to repeat this process by scooping up piles of cells in their “mouths” that become new xenobots. Although the “offspring” are too microscopic and weak to repeat the process and create a third generation, the replication is still a groundbreaking advancement in synthetic biology. 

There are several advantages of expanding xenobot technology. Researchers speculate that they could be programmed to advance the field of medicine by performing tasks like scraping plaque from arteries or delivering medicine. Since they are capable of surviving for several days without nutrients in an aqueous environment, scientists also predict that xenobots could help clean up hazardous materials in the ocean.

Xenobots are a fascinating development in the world of synthetic biology, so scientists are eager to explore their potential.

Categories: Science

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