Last year, scientists made history after announcing the world's first living robots. Today, those same organisms have reached a new milestone: the ability to reproduce. From the startling discovery to the study it called for, here's what researchers have unearthed about the puzzling creatures.
It all started when scientists at the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and Harvard University announced a new finding: the same life forms they'd developed a year prior were now able to replicate - in ways never seen before. "I was astounded by it," Michael Levin, professor of biology and co-author of the study, confessed. Why?
Made up of stem cells from African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), the robots, appropriately named Xenobots, possess a rare trait: "Frogs have a way of reproducing that they normally use," Levin explained. "But when you ... liberate [the cells] from the rest of the embryo and you give them a chance to figure out how to be in a new environment, not only do they figure out a new way to move, but they also figure out apparently a new way to reproduce."
Sure enough, the Xenobots accomplished just that. With the help of kinetic replication, the living organisms replicated in ways unknown to any other animal or plant known to man. In roughly five days, the robots were able to form clusters of 3,000 cells upon merging. "One [xenobot] parent can begin a pile and then, by chance, a second parent can push more cells into that pile, and so on, generating the child," co-author Josh Bongard noted.
For those who forgot, the robots were first unveiled back in 2020 after researchers used a supercomputer to invent a blueprint for a new life form. With the help of the Xenopus frogs' stem cells, the experiment was left to incubate, resulting in what we know now as Xenobots. But the resulting creation was no ordinary "robot."
"Most people think of robots as made of metals and ceramics," Josh Bongard, lead author of the PNAS study, explained of the tiny clusters. "But it's not so much what a robot is made from but what it does, which is act on its own on behalf of people."