Robots are no longer just metallic, circuit laden machines
Here is the creation of a new type of living machine of great complexity, which is considered a significant achievement.
A team of researchers has announced the creation of tiny “completely biological machines”, just a millimeter in size, from frog embryonic cells. That is, from scratch.
“It is a new type of artifact: a living and programmable organism,” says Joshua Bongard, one of the researchers responsible for this creation.
We are, therefore, facing the first time that an artificial organism, or robot, is created from only live and reprogrammed cells.
But that is not all. The achievement, published this Monday in the scientific journal PNAS, also answers one of biology’s big questions.
How cells cooperate to build functional bodies and how we can intervene in this process to build an organism that performs a specific function.
It is, therefore, a decisive step in the attempt to control the rules of the biology game.
Hence, the scientific community welcomes this new success with emotion. This milestone marks a before and after in research on living machines.
It is a very important proof of concept and that is why people are so enthusiastic, but there is still a long way to go before they can measure its possible applications.
They have achieved something revolutionary, which is to generate functional structures thanks to the combination of machine learning and biological programming.
But the most interesting part of this research is that it delves into questions that have been in the air for more than a hundred years, for example, how cells come together to create specific structures and perform specific functions.
“We are facing a disruptive field of study in which we work with ideas outside the established”, stresses the researcher.
To understand the birth of these “first living robots” you have to go from the beginning. The experiment begins in the bowels of the University of Vermont’s ‘Deep Green’ supercomputer.
It is there where researchers, led by the expert in evolutionary robotics Sam Kriegman, executed an algorithm to investigate, starting from a database with a hundred digitized cells, what combination of elements could give rise to a new way of life that was able to perform basic tasks on its own.
The simulations they revealed had the most promising designs that they would have to study in a laboratory.
Already in the hands of a team of biologists from Tufts University and with the collaboration of microsurgeon Douglas Blackiston, researchers tried to make the success achieved ‘in silica’ also come to life ‘in vitro’.
In this second stage of the experiment, stem cells from African frog (Xenopus laevis) embryos were collected. These, in turn, were separated into individual units and allowed to incubate.
Next, with the help of tiny tweezers and electrodes, the experts set about cutting and gluing the cells into the combinations that had thrived on the supercomputer. And it was there that magic arose. Or, rather, where science had to ‘assemble a new way of life’.
Researchers emphasize that these laboratory-created cell combinations do not exist in nature. Hence, given their architecture, they are robots. Or, in this case, in honor of the little frogs that lent their embryos to the experiment, they could be before the first ‘xenorobots’ that come to life thanks to the combination of the rules introduced by programming and spontaneous self-organization.
The combination of skin cells with cells of the heart muscle, for example, gave rise to a millimetric artifact capable of moving in a straight line and exploring its environment for days. Other designs, on the other hand, are observed for their ability to move in circles and push some granules towards a common point.
And, for now, this is all that has been achieved. But what might seem like a brief milestone to many, in the future could lead to an infinite number of applications.
Michael Levin, one of the researchers responsible for this study, explains that the future evolution of these ‘living robots’ will have “a massive impact on biomedicine.”
In the long term, if it is possible to decipher how to instruct a cell to perform a specific function. Experts pose a revolution in the field of regenerative medicine.
You could, for example, design or regenerate body parts. “The long-term goal here is to discover how living agents (cells) can be motivated to build specific things, and how to exploit their plasticity and competence to do things that are too difficult,” argues Levin.
But, for now, since it is early for enthusiasm, experts choose to turn their enthusiasm into the scientific achievement itself and, from there, continue researching.