by Ben Daviss
Scientists continue to blur the line between living creatures and machines.
Researchers at the University of Vermont and Tufts University took cells from frog embryos and configured them into living robots that can carry out assignments, such as traveling through arteries to scrape away plaque or picking up toxic molecules and ferrying them out of the body.
The bioengineers say that this is the first time living cells have been used to design an entirely biological machine from scratch.
The research team used a software program that mimicked evolution and loaded it with basic information about what the frog cells could do. Then they told the computer to combine the cells in a way that would allow the assembly to carry out a specific task, such as moving in a particular direction.
The computer then put the digital versions of cells together thousands of times in random ways.
The computer kept and refined the more successful designs and abandoned the useless results.
Finally, the most promising 100 designs were tested: skin and heart cells were taken from frog embryos, incubated to maturity, then micro-stitched together according to the computer’s designs to make new life forms a few hundredths of an inch in size.
The cells self-organized, with the skin cells creating a structure and the contracting heart cells synchronizing to create movement.
On their computer, the scientists also designed “frogbots” with holes in the center that could be used as a pouch to deliver drugs or capture harmful substances.
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By starting with creatures a few hundred cells in size, this research team will be able to spot some of those consequences as they observe their creatures over time, engineer around them, and guide others in what kinds of surprises they might find. Not all researchers, however, will follow this cautious approach.
by Ben Daviss