Can Living Cells Be Programmed like Machines? (with picture)

Don't be afraid, but the xenobots are coming. They mean no harm, and in fact, they might one day do wonders for life on Earth, and for the planet itself.

Scientists have created the first living robots, known as "xenobots," from frog stem cells.
Scientists have created the first living robots, known as "xenobots," from frog stem cells.

Xenobots are miniature organisms that scientists are describing as the first living robots. Researchers took stem cells from African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) embryos and replicated the designs suggested by a supercomputer at the University of Vermont, thus creating new lifeforms capable of performing simple tasks, such as moving in one direction.

Being able to program living cells to perform specific tasks could eventually lead to applications such as radioactive waste clean-up and delivering necessary medications within the human body. Although they are described as robotic, the little organisms are actually composed entirely of living matter.

For now, xenobots contain fewer than 1,000 cells and are under .04 inches (1 mm) in length. They can survive for only 10 days, at best. Although xenobots appear to have many potential uses in health care, environmental protection, and more, they also raise ethical questions, and their developers have said that the way forward must include discussions to alleviate these concerns.

The science of health care:

  • In 2000, the Human Genome Project successfully completed the first full model of the human genome, setting the stage for advances in preventative medicine.

  • Although heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, heart disease-related deaths have declined by 60% since the 1980s, thanks to preventative medicine and new treatments.

  • In 1954, doctors achieved the first human organ transplant, a kidney transplant. Today, transplantable organs include the heart, liver, lungs, pancreas, intestines, and more.

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    • Scientists have created the first living robots, known as "xenobots," from frog stem cells.
      Scientists have created the first living robots, known as "xenobots," from frog stem cells.