The World’s First Living Robot


Sua Lee, Contributor

Imagine a living robot made by machines. Then imagine this robot walking and swimming and working with other biobots, while self-healing injuries and duplicating themselves. Well, this imaginary machine is actually real, and it is living just 2,978.5 miles away in Medford, Massachusetts.

The new biohybrid robot, dubbed “Xenobot,” was made by Doug Blackiston, a biologist at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. The Xenobot first began as a message from a group of scientists from Burlington. The message asked about a way to create living miniature robots that could perform tasks like pollution cleanup. Blackiston decided to build it. Ignoring the skepticism of his fellow scientists, he put in some heart cells that would make the robot’s heart beat and some stem cells that he obtained from the African clawed frog, also known as the Xenopus laevis (hence the name “Xenobot”.) The end result was a Pac-Man-shaped blob.

The Xenobot’s size is similar to a grain of sand, but despite its tiny size, it can do many amazing things. Xenobots can walk and swim all on their own, thanks to the frog cells that allow their muscles to contract. They can work together like ants to move small objects, and they can also self-heal injuries. In an experiment, scientists cut a Xenobot in half, but it just stitched itself back up and kept working. Their most recently found capability is that they can duplicate. First, a Xenobot swims around its tiny dish, gathering thousands of stray cells. Then it assembles a “baby” Xenobot inside their Pac-Man-shaped “mouth,” and a few days later, it becomes a full Xenobot that looks like and can do exactly the same things as the first one. But this does not mean that there are millions of Xenobots milling around the place. Xenobots die after 7 days, and then they just become biodegradable dead skin cells.

The reaction to this new development was mixed. Scientists believe that they could advance greatly in cell biology by studying Xenobots. They think that Xenobots might fix many problems in the world, like cleaning up radioactive waste or collecting plastic in the oceans. Doctors also believe that the tiny Xenobots could enter the human body to deliver medicine, clean up arthritic joints or chase cancer cells away. They could learn from the Xenobot’s ability to self-heal and reproduce and find a way to repair birth defects, reprogram tumors into normal tissue, and regenerate after a traumatic injury. The Xenobots hold much promise, yes, but some people display concern about these biohybrid robots. As computers become more powerful and smart, they will design new and even better organisms. “Should a computer be able to design life?” Blackiston asks. “And what would it come up with? People also need to ask: are we comfortable with that? Do we want Google to design life forms?” Blackiston agrees that rules about which cells to use and what to do with them are critical for creating living organisms.