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Tiny living machines called xenobots can create copies of themselves

Tiny “living machines” made of frog cells can replicate themselves, making copies that can then go on to do the same. This newly described form of renewal offers insights into how to design biological machines that are self-perpetuating.

“This is an incredibly exciting breakthrough,” for the field of biologically based robotics, says Kirstin Petersen, an electrical and computer engineer at Cornell University who studies groups of robots. Robots that can copy themselves are an important step toward systems that don’t need humans to operate, she says.

Earlier this year, researchers described the behaviors of the lab-made living robots, called xenobots (SN: 3/31/21). Plucked out of frogs’ growing bodies, small clumps of skin stem cells from frog embryos knitted themselves into small spheres and began to move. Cellular extensions called cilia served as motors that powered the xenobots as they cruised around their lab dishes.

That cruising can have a bigger purpose, the researchers now report in the Dec. 7 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As the xenobots bumble about, they can gather loose frog cells into spheres, which then coalesce into xenobots themselves.

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