Xenobots (robots made from frog cells) could play a key role in the future of healthcare, according to Dr Douglas Blackiston of Tufts University’s Allen Discovery Centre. Dr Blackiston’s team created xenobots in their third generation. With artificial intelligence, these self-powered robots are half a millimetre long and made from living frog cells.
Dr Blackiston explains that a xenobot is a combination of two words. “Xenopus laevis is the frog species that we work with in the lab that translates roughly to ‘strange foot’ … and ‘bot’ from robot. A xenobot is basically a “micro-biological robot”, he tells ABC RN’s Future Tense. “It walks around, it swims, it can sense its environment. All of these are features that we programme and shape through the types of experiments that we do in the lab.”
Blackiston says it’s hard to build a tiny self-powered robot of this design out of synthetic materials, so they used living cells. “We have a number of treatments that we’re investigating with xenobots, from all sorts of things like being able to seek out a damaged spinal cord and release pro-regenerative compounds, to being able to participate in other parts of regeneration in either mammals or in humans in the future,” he says.
Are xenobots a life form? Yes and no. Dr Blackiston says that, despite the presence of living cells, xenobots don’t meet the “traditional biological characteristics” of a life form, like being able to produce offspring. He defines them as “computer-designed life forms”.