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Opportunities, risks and ethics of xenobots


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In recent years, we’ve seen an exponential growth in biological innovation and deep technology. A significant scientific breakthrough that faces us today is the advent of xenobots, which could soon present a new trend in corporate innovation. Made from African frog stem cells, these are biological robots that are showing early signs of being able to reinvent our medical technologies and approach to the environment. 


Even though xenobots are still in the developmental stages, these programmable organisms have the capacity to move, carry materials, and even multiply. Of course, the discovery of these capabilities usher in a new wave of opportunities, risks and ethical considerations. With the future of these organisms still to be decided, one thing is certain: those looking to invest in deep tech should keep a close watch on xenobots.


What are xenobots?

Xenobots are living robots. They’re an example of deep technology developed entirely from living cells, and they can be programmed for a range of different basic functions. They may not be your traditional and mechanical metal robot—but they’re actually even more impressive.


To create xenobots, scientists used what’s known as an evolutionary algorithm to test thousands of possibilities and find the best cells for the xenobots. These were found to be frog cells, specifically stem cells from the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). Scientists then cultured the extracted stem cells from frog embryos and glued them together into various configurations during micro-surgery.


The stem cells began to create new cells, ready to take up new functions such as skin cells to provide structure, and heart cells to enable movement.


Developed in a new study carried out by researchers from the University of Vermont and Tufts University, they’re set to help scientists inch closer to key biological and medical advancements.


What’s next for xenobots?

Xenobots are programmable, which means there are lots of opportunities on the horizon. Their design determines their capabilities—and because xenobots use stem cells, they’re highly adaptable for a range of purposes.



While their behaviours may be basic for the time being, xenobots are still in development. Further down the line, there are hopes for them to be inserted into the human body for targeted medical care or regenerative medicine. 


Additionally, they’re made of living tissue that will eventually decompose, unlike conventional metal or synthetic medical equipment. This makes them particularly safe for human use. They can also survive in aqueous environments for weeks, meaning they could be used to enhance internal drug delivery.


Cleaning up our environment

Xenobots have the capacity to move and transport objects and, remarkably, to recognise and collect debris from their surroundings. It’s possible that with further development, xenobots could be used to collect microplastics from oceans, or to clean up radioactive waste.


Producing more xenobots

Scientists have found that these living robots are capable of constructing new xenobots themselves, multiplying by clumping together with loose cells.


Sam Kriegman, a Synthetic Biologist and Roboticist at Harvard University and leading author of the new xenobots study, put this observation into perspective. “These are frog cells replicating in a way that is very different from how frogs do it. No animal or plant known to science replicates in this way.” 


Biological robots with autonomy 

There are hopes to extend this research to the point where xenobots will be able to operate autonomously without any human intervention. However, as with any biological innovation, they present risks and ethical issues which are important to consider.


What are the risks and ethical issues?

Inevitably, xenobots tap into the fundamental concern that robots will one day become too autonomous, initiating a threat to human existence. There is also the idea that researchers have opened society up to a process that could become overwhelming, or that deep technology could be used against us. 


However, Kriegman has emphasised that these cells will never reach a point beyond our control. As he pointed out, any changes to the sodium levels of the water or an increase of copper in the dish can quickly kill off the stem cells.


That being said, as living organisms, there is the potential that one day they’ll start to reject the new behaviours imposed on them or simply malfunction. In the same way that they could be used to carry drugs to specific areas of the body to improve medical treatments, xenobots could also be manipulated to compromise certain life functions and endanger human health. With that in mind, developers and entrepreneurs will want to exercise a certain degree of caution in their dealings with xenobots.


Do xenobots have a place in the future?

Scientific entrepreneurship demands new innovations. This can’t be achieved without uncovering new knowledge, practises and unforeseen consequences. It’s a vital part of the research into xenobots that will allow for further progress.


Fundamentally, this new type of robot is still under development, so it’s important to remain open-minded about their capabilities. In recent years, we’ve made great strides in scientific entrepreneurship and deep technology—and xenobots might just mark a new era. With the potential to become game changers in medical care, cleaning up our oceans, and the future of robotics, deep tech investors would do well to keep an eye on xenobots as more discoveries are made.


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