Researchers hope the living robots, made up of masses of cells working in coordination, can help unlock the mysteries of cellular communication.
Under the watchful eye of a microscope, busy little blobs scoot around in a field of liquid moving forward, turning around, sometimes spinning in circles. Drop cellular debris onto the plain and the blobs will herd them into piles. Flick any blob onto its back and it’ll lie there like a flipped-over turtle.
Their behavior is reminiscent of a microscopic flatworm in pursuit of its prey, or even a tiny animal called a water bear – a creature complex enough in its bodily makeup to manage sophisticated behaviors. The resemblance is an illusion: These blobs consist of only two things, skin cells and heart cells from frogs.
Writing today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers describe how they’ve engineered so-called xenobots (from the species of frog, Xenopus laevis, whence their cells came) with the help of evolutionary algorithms. They hope that this new kind of organism contracting cells and passive cells stuck together and its eerily advanced behavior can help scientists unlock the mysteries of cellular communication.
How cells work together to form intricate anatomies “is a major puzzle,” says Tufts University developmental biophysicist Michael Levin, coauthor on the new paper. “What we’re very much interested in is this question of how cells work together to make specific functional structures.” Once they start probing that unknown, they might even make headway on the more mysterious question of what else a cell might be willing to make.
Levin and his colleagues began co-designing their xenobots with the help of the cells themselves, and some fancy algorithms. They harvested stem cells from frog embryos and differentiated them into heart cells, which naturally contract, and skin cells, which don’t. Working under a microscope, they cobble these active and passive components together, making use of the cells’ natural inclination to stick to one another. Some ended up shaped like wedges, others like arches. In the GIF above, the teal squares at top are passive cells, while the alternating green and red cells at bottom are active cells.
When the xenobots moved around, the researchers could observe how their unique structures both in their cells’ arrangement and the overall shape of the blob mapped to behavior. They sent all this data to a team of computer scientists, who built a simulated environment for digital versions of the xenobots to play in. They then ran evolutionary algorithms, which in a sense replicate the processes of natural selection, to look at how a xenobot’s structure helps it, say, move forward. The system searches for possible manipulations of the xenobots’ designs and explores how these new designs might affect functionality. Xenobots that do well at a particular task in the simulation are deemed “fit”, and are bred with other high performers to create a new generation of “evolved” xenobots.
Levin and his coworkers then try building some of these designs; others they throw out. They send the ones that work back to the computer scientists, who adjust their simulator based on what the lab folks learned. “So it’s this kind of back and forth cycle between the design and the biology that helps understand the rules of what the biology is doing,” says Levin.
The brainless blobs end up behaving in ways that are downright spooky. “They change their movement from time to time, so they will move in a particular way, then they’ll change it, then they’ll turn around and go back,” says Levin. When they encounter other loose cells, they’ll herd them into little piles. Slice a xenobot open and it’ll pull itself together again, à la T-1000 from Terminator 2. Two xenobots might join together and scoot around as a happy couple. A xenobot with a hole in it can pick up and carry things.
How a xenobot’s cells are communicating or really, how cells communicate in general to produce such complex behaviors is what Levin and his colleagues are after. “And most importantly, how we can control it,” Levin says. A xenobot is a one-of-a-kind organism: It’s both a living thing made of living cells and a machine that the researchers can program to express certain behaviors. The frog cells aren’t special in and of themselves – it’s the emergent behavior they collectively produce that’s so remarkable.
Then we can start to think about a whole new way of going about robotics. Your typical humanoid robot is a collection of dumb parts that makes up an (ideally) intelligent whole that can walk around and manipulate objects. But a human body is intelligent all the way down – cells are communicating to make tissues, which collaborate to make organs, which make up the (ideally) intelligent whole. “We are interested in feeding that information back to engineering and AI,” Levin says.
The path there won’t be easy, though. “Constructing robots out of living tissue shares many of the same challenges that are being worked on in the field of soft robotics, only turned up to 11,” says Tønnes Nygaard, who studies evolutionary robotics at the University of Oslo, but who wasn’t involved in this research. The real world is a messy and noisy place that any robot has a hard time adapting to, much less a robot made out of fussy living cells. But the beauty of using these kinds of evolutionary techniques means the robots in a sense adapt themselves to the environment like real living things, albeit with the guiding hand of humans.
So a warm welcome to the xenobots, hybrid robot-organisms like no other. May the world treat you kindly.
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