Sitting in a petri dish in the laboratories of Tufts University and the University of Vermont are a new kind of life form — half living cells and half machine. Xenobots are a scientific and technological breakthrough — a living organism that is fully programmable, capable of changing form and function essentially on command. The new type of bot was first introduced earlier this year, and thanks to a report from the New York Times, we now have a look behind the process of creating the novel creatures that have the potential to bridge the divide between the mechanical and biological.
Xenobots are not like any creature you’ve seen before. In fact, you can’t really see them at all. These so-called living machines look like little more than a speck to the naked eye, measuring up at about one millimeter wide. The idea for the new organisms was first dreamed up on a supercomputer at the University of Vermont. Researchers ran hundreds of simulations using what they called an “evolutionary algorithm” that would simulate different types of cells. It finally landed on the design for what would become the Xenobot. To bring that design to life, scientists scraped thousands of living skin cells from frog embryos — specifically the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis, hence the name Xenobot. After separating the cells and allowing them to incubate, the researchers used a tiny forceps and electrode to cut and assemble the cells under a microscope until they were assembled in a way that matched the supercomputer’s blueprint.