It Isn’t Just Science Fiction Anymore

Remember when you first read a science fiction story with nanobots teaming inside a person? Were you afraid? I thought it was cool. But that was fiction. And nanobots aren’t real–yet. However, tiny robots inside your body isn’t just science fiction anymore. A team of researchers at the University of Vermont have created a new life-form.

Computer-Designed

Digital computer designs look like blue and red lego blocks making various shapes
digital designs on top, cells below

Lead author and doctoral student, Sam Kriegman, used an evolutionary algorithm. He fed it into the Deep Green supercomputer cluster at UVM. The computer ran thousands of simulated designs over the next few months. The basic biophysics of what single frog skin and cardiac cells can do drove its decisions. It discarded designs that failed and refined the more successful ones. After a hundred independent runs of the algorithm, the research team chose the most promising designs.

Repurposed

A book is made of wood. But it is not a tree. The dead cells have been repurposed to serve another need.

UVM News

From there the research went to biologists at Tufts University. Michael Levin, who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts, and his team brought the computer designs to life. With vital help from microsurgeon Douglas Blackiston, they harvested stem cells from the embryos of African frogs. Then they separated them into single cells. After an incubation period, they put the cells under a microscope. Using tiny instruments, they cut and rejoined the cells to resemble the computer design.

Tests showed that a group of the new life-forms would push pellets into a central location. The scientist redesigned it to reduce drag and to give it a means to carry tiny payloads. 

Living Programmable Organism

image of xenobot--a tiny organism with green of the frog skin and red cardiac muscle. Tiny robots inside your body isn't just science fiction anymore.

They called the organism a xenobot after Xenopus laevis, the species of frog used to create it. Slightly smaller than the head of a pin, it has four appendages. It has large hind limbs and smaller forelimbs layered with red heart muscle. The heart muscle contracts which allows it to move It can move independently or in coordination with other xenobots. It can carry tiny things. And if cut, it can heal itself.

It lives off its own embryonic energy stores. A xenobot’s life span ranges from seven days to several weeks.

There are no external controls. 

“These xenobots are fully biodegradable,” say Bongard, “when they’re done with their job after seven days, they’re just dead skin cells.”

UMV News

A Brief Summary

The Future of Xenobots

Scientists believe that xenobots can carry medicine to specific cells within a patient’s body. Someday xenobots might remove microplastics from the ocean. They might be useful in toxic spills or radioactive contamination. They might even clean plaque from human arteries. (The plaque that causes strokes and heart attacks.)

You can learn more about xenobots and what the scientist hope they’ll learn on their website.

What Could Go Wrong?

The UMV news stated, “Many people worry about the implications of rapid technological change and complex biological manipulations. ‘That fear is not unreasonable,’ Levin says. ‘When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don’t understand, we’re going to get unintended consequences.’”

Obviously they will do lots more testing and research. But as a science fiction author, I can’t help but imagine what sorts of unintended consequences there might be. Any past science fiction movies bring some ideas to mind?

They say that xenobots can’t reproduce or evolve. Where have we heard that one before? Hmm?

It’s not just science fiction anymore, is it?  Xenobots aren’t nanobots, but they are tiny. And they aren’t going to be injected in humans soon. But they have the potential to affect the future of the health and longevity of humans. Do you view this new life-form with hope or fear?

2 thoughts on “It Isn’t Just Science Fiction Anymore

    1. Thanks, Jennette, I’m glad you found it fascinating. The potential for problems or abuse are huge. I do think that creatures like these will be part of our future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *