From the “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” file in the “Didn’t We See This in a Movie?” section comes word that the scientists who created the world’s first living robots (Did you miss that story? We’ll fill you in.) called xenobots have put them together in a container and they’re now reproducing. Was a xenobot dating app involved? Who takes care of the xenobabies? Should we be worried … or is it too late for that?
"I was astounded by it. Frogs have a way of reproducing that they normally use 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."
Frogs? We’ll catch you up on xenobots. Back in early 2020 (seems so long ago, doesn’t it?), researchers at the University of Vermont and Tufts University took stem cells from African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis – hence the name), used a supercomputer to cut them up, molded them into new shapes “never before seen in nature” (Yes, we asked “What could possibly go wrong” back then too – they didn’t listen) and were amazed when the new shapes began to grow into bodies with skin, a heart muscle and more. In a scene right out of a movie, they cut one in half and it healed itself and kept moving.
Joshua Bongard, one of the lead researchers at the University of Vermont, said in the news release that these were “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It's a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism." A xenobot. As expected, the scientists didn’t call in the army to help kill the xenobots – they kept experimenting with them … which leads us to a new paper and announcement that the xenobots are reproducing … although not in a way any living things reproduce.
“Instead, the researchers found that if they put enough of the xenobots in close proximity with one another in a petri dish, their collective movement began to pile up other loose frog cells floating alongside in the solution. Once enough of those cells were stacked together, the aggregated heap of about 50 cells became a kind of offspring to the xenobot organism, capable of swimming by itself, and in so doing, piling up its own offspring.”
‘Piles of Xenobots’ sounds like a heavy metal band, but it’s actually a form of reproduction formally called “spontaneous kinematic self-replication,” and this is the first time it has been seen in living multicellular systems like the xenobots. The xenobots were dropped into a new Petrie dish filled with dissociated cells and were seen moving and compressing them into functioning self-copies. If that’s not scary enough, there’s more.
"This form of perpetuation, previously unseen in any organism, arises spontaneously over days rather than evolving over millennia."
That’s right … what would normally happen in a process of evolution over thousands of years happened in thousands of minutes. Should we be worried? Well, the first xenobots had some body parts, but no brains. The copies or ‘offspring’ also lacked brains and were smaller than their ‘parents’ … and they were not able to spontaneously kinematically self-replicate.
"This suggests that future technologies may, with little outside guidance, become more useful as they spread, and that life harbors surprising behaviors just below the surface, waiting to be uncovered."
“Waiting to be uncovered.” Does that sound like the last line of a dystopian movie setting up a sequel … or series? What could possibly go wrong?