Hello fellow organism!

At the onset of a new year, the scientists in Tufts University have been exhilarated by the outcome of a mind-blowing experiment. Using cells scraped off of an African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, scientists have created a lifeform that does not exist on Earth so far. According to Michael Levin the Director at the Tufts these are “living, programmable organisms”. About a millimetre-wide, these ‘xenobots’ (coined after their scientific name), despite being crafted from the cells of a frog bear no resemblance to their amphibian lineage.

This creation has been brought to life with the help of ‘evolutionary’ computer algorithms that simulate the process of natural selection. Computer scientists from the University of Vermont worked on creating designs using stimulating passive cells and contracting heart cells using the Deep Green supercomputer. Over a hundred designs were produced out of which the best performing designs were selected and refined. Then it was back to the laboratory, working behind microscopes and bringing cells together to bring to life the designs specified by the computer.

Once formed, they were placed in a petri dish filled with water where they were seen zipping through their new environment. They moved in straight lines, circles or clustered together. During the simulation, some of these bots were designed with a hole which could be reprogrammed to behave as a pouch that could possibly hold drugs. One of the fascinating properties of this new robot is its capability to repair itself unlike its steel-made counterparts. They can survive up to a week using fuels that it has stored as lipids and proteins. Once this fuel is used up, they are just a mass of dead cells that degrade.

This innovation has been envisioned for a plethora of applications. Scientists believe that it could be used for an ocean cleanup as these bots swim through the water removing microplastic. It could also be used to clear plaques in the arteries and also for intelligent drug delivery in the body.

While the anatomy of these lifeforms is purely biological, the fact that we programmed its design is truly captivating. It shows how far the world of computing has come. Efficient, intelligent, ’evolutionary’ algorithms are providing answers to our unresolved questions on fundamental topics such as life and growth. As we welcome these new inhabitants to our messy world, let us hope they bode well for our existence.

To understand more about the algorithm behind this and watch these little bots in action visit https://www.wired.com/story/xenobot/

Anna Susan Cherian