Research: Living machines no longer sci fi

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Don’t worry. These bots are itty bitty.

If you’re a Trekkie (guilty), this will remind you of a certain Borg bombshell. How often “Seven’s” nanites came to the rescue — miniature bug-like machines from her bloodstream adapted to save a life, defeat an enemy, fix the ship.

Not such a wild idea, apparently.

“Nano” derives from the Latin nanus, meaning dwarf. Nanites — short for nanobots, or nanomachines — are real, but still in the development phase. These microscopic-sized robotic machines (quasi-biological or entirely synthetic) can be programmed for specific tasks with exciting potential applications in medicine, construction, and other industries.

Until now these creatively engineered minibots have been inanimate. The latest experiment, published by University of Vermont researchers in the Jan. 13 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involves living nanobots made entirely of frog DNA, which they call “xenobots.”

I’m not sure if that’s just amazingly cool or if we should be a little scared. Living robots, meant to scamper about the body? Encouraging applications include fighting cancer more effectively. But what else might these mini frogs-but-not-frogs do once they’re in there?

Fear not, say scientists. Paper may be made of wood, but it’s hardly a tree (yeah, but paper doesn’t crawl up my arm, either).

Smaller than a pinhead and resembling a tooth-shaped cloud, these repurposed, living stem cells came from the Xenopus laevis African frog. Xenobots can be programmed to carry a payload to a target, such as a drug headed for a specific organ.

Xenobots have heart tissue. They can even repair themselves if damaged, and — drumroll — self-replicate.

On the other hand, they’re also quite limited. They’re not remote-controlled. Once programmed and let go they do their job, like a smart wind-up toy. When their multi-week life span ends, they simply biodegrade, say the researchers, becoming like dead skin cells.

“These are novel living machines,” said Joshua Bongard, robotics expert and co-leader of the research team, in a statement. “They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

The new creatures were designed using algorithms on a UVM supercomputer, then assembled and tested by biologists at Tufts University.

“We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can’t do,” said co-leader Michael Levin of Tufts, “like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering microplastic in the oceans, traveling in arteries to scrape out plaque.”

The research team considers the xenobots a small step toward cracking the “morphogenetic code,” providing a deeper view of how living things organize, compute and store information.

As to the fear factor, Levin acknowledged it’s “not unreasonable” in the UVM statement.

“When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don’t understand, we’re going to get unintended consequences.”

They compare this invention to one ant in a colony, the lowest level science needs to comprehend and master to manage the bigger picture and survive into the future. Complex systems, like an ant colony, begin with a simple unit — one ant — without which it would be impossible to predict the shape of the colony or how they can build bridges over water with their interlinked bodies.

In other words, this study directly contributes to understanding and eventually controlling those unintended consequences. That could apply to self-driving cars, changing genes to wipe out disease, killing tumors, and other complex human systems.

Seems worth it.

•••

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who understands only enough science to be dangerous. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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