If you didn’t already think you were living in a sci-fi world now you have no choice but to succumb to its inevitability.

A research team from several East Coast institutions (University of Vermont, Tufts University, and Harvard University) recently demonstrated “living” robots made from biological materials.

Their paper has a rather modest title: A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms.

These folks aren’t as excited about what they created so much as they are about the process and what it suggests for future creations.

Stem cells were harvested from Xenopus laevis (African clawed frogs) as well as progenitor cardiac cells which were then manipulated mechanically and shaped into designs, creating “creatures” of about 1 mm in size. (The heart tissues are contractile and provide a crude locomotion.) The designs were done in silico and subjected to an evolutionary algorithm that winnowed out un-workable architectures and provided models for assembling the living-tissue robots.

The computational requirements to model the designs and test them in virtual environments were immense and done on the so-called “DeepGreen” supercomputer at the University of Vermont. The actual biological assembly was the least complicated part of the process. The “surviving” designs were further analyzed and improved in succeeding trials. The goal was to create novel organisms capable of four things: locomotion, object manipulation, object transport, and collective behavior. From the study:

Here, we demonstrate a scalable approach for designing living
systems in silico using an evolutionary algorithm, and we show
how the evolved designs can be rapidly manufactured using a
cell-based construction toolkit. The approach is organized as a
linear pipeline that takes as input a description of the biological
building blocks to be used and the desired behavior the manufactured
system should exhibit (Fig. 1). The pipeline continuously
outputs performant living systems that embody that behavior in
different ways. The resulting living systems are novel aggregates of
cells that yield novel functions: above the cellular level, they bear
little resemblance to existing organs or organisms.

“They bear little resemblance to existing organs or organisms.”

This is not Jurassic Park! This is something else entirely and the focus is on reproducibility, that is, industrial-scale applications.

What might such things be good for? Again, from the authors:

Given their nontoxicity and selflimiting
lifespan, they could serve as a novel vehicle for intelligent
drug delivery (28) or internal surgery (29). If equipped to express
signaling circuits and proteins for enzymatic, sensory (receptor),
and mechanical deformation functions, they could seek out and
digest toxic or waste products, or identify molecules of interest in
environments physically inaccessible to robots. If equipped with
reproductive systems (by exploiting endogenous regenerative
mechanisms such as occurs in planarian fissioning), they may be
capable of doing so at scale. In biomedical settings, one could envision
such biobots (made from the patient’s own cells) removing
plaque from artery walls, identifying cancer, or settling down to
differentiate or control events in locations of disease. A beneficial
safety feature of such constructions is that in the absence of specific
metabolic engineering, they have a naturally limited lifespan.

In the future—which is closer all the time—medicines will be customized to the patient. Extraction of materials from the earth, whether for remediation (waste cleanup) or resource mining, will be done without risking human workers.

I’m surprised this story didn’t generate more interest. I think it is pretty damn amazing and I hope I live long enough to see such schemes become economically feasible.

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