Xenobots – Organic Robots

Xenobots are the first living machines assembled from cells from African clawed Frogs. They’ve turned them clawed frogs into tiny robots that move around under their own steam. Err….Skynet anyone?

Researchers in the US have one of the most successful creations that have two stumpy legs that propel it along it’s own ‘chest’. While another one has a hole n the middle. The US researchers turned it into a pouch so it can move around with miniature payloads.

“These are entirely new lifeforms. They have never before existed on Earth….They are living, programmable organisms.” Michael Levin, the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts

While many robots are made out of metal and plastic traditionally, Levin and his colleagues are looking to making robots from biological tissues and see many benefits from doing so. However this sounds very scary. As when damaged living robots can heal their wounds. But when their task is done they fall apart, just as natural organisms which decay when they die.

These types of bots could be used to clean oceans, deliver drugs to the body or even remove plaque from artery walls.

“It’s impossible to know what the applications will be for any new technology, so we can really only guess,” Joshua Bongard, a senior researcher on the team at the University of Vermont.


The robots are also very very small, less than 1mm long in fact! They are designed by an evolutionary algorithm which runs on a supercomputer. It will generate random 3d configurations of 500 to 1,000 skin and heart cells. Each one is tested in a virtual environment too! The best ones are used to breed more designs, which they are too put to the test. One of the tests could be to see how far it moves when the heart cells are beating. Therefore as heart cells spontaneously contract and relax, they behave like miniature engines. Which will drive the robots along until the energy runs out. The cells/robots that have been created have enough energy in them to survive for 1 week to 10 days.

Eventually 100 generations of the cells were created before they picked the best of the best to build in the lab. The scientists even used tweezers and caustering tools to sculpt skin and heart cells from the embryos of African clawed frogs. An African Clawed frog is called Xenopus Laevis. Hence the term “Xenobots”

Researchers describe how they set the robots loose. Inside dishes of water to keep frog cells alive. The Xenobots crept along in straight lines. While other Xenobots would loop in circles or even team up! Levin said that the plan is to ultimately make them to scale. They can build blood vessels, nervous systems and sensory cells to form rudimentary eyes! Furthermore, what’s even more surprising is that if they built the Xenobot out of mammalian cells they could eventually live on dry land!

Future Generations

Future generations of the Xenobots could be given nervous systems and cognitive capabilities, which could raise ethical issues in the future.

Levin also said that the research is to achieve more than just little robots. It could help solve things like birth defects and age-related diseases. As they can start to learn more about biological structures, which could lead to ultimate control over growth and form. Thomas Douglas, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said:

“There are interesting ethical questions about the moral status of these xenobots. At what point would they become beings with interests that ought to be protected? I think they’d acquire moral significance only if they included neural tissue that enabled some kind of mental life, such as the ability to experience pain….But some are more liberal about moral status. They think that all living creatures have interests that should be given some moral consideration. For these people, difficult questions could arise about whether these xenobots should be classified as living creatures or machines.”


The research is funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s lifelong learning machines programme. The programme said that the research’s aim is to recreate biological learning processes in machines.

Keep up to date with everything How To Kill An Hour by signing up to our newsletter by clicking here!

Let us know what you think of the show by clicking here!

Click here to subscribe to our YouTube Channel to see more amazing ways to kill time!

Follow us on Twitch by clicking here!