Tiny living anthrobots does exist! In a groundbreaking study, researchers from Tufts University and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute have successfully created anthrobots—tiny living robots composed of human cells that exhibit mobility within a laboratory setting. The innovative development, detailed in a recent publication in the journal Advanced Science, builds upon previous work that produced xenobots, the first living robots made from stem cells derived from African clawed frog embryos.
Study author Michael Levin, Vannevar Bush professor of biology at Tufts’ School of Arts & Sciences, emphasized that the anthrobots’ unique properties are not exclusive to being embryonic or amphibian. Levin stated, “I think this is a much more general property of living things. We don’t realize all the competencies that our own body cells have.”
Unlike full-fledged organisms, the anthrobots do not undergo a complete life cycle, challenging conventional categorizations of entities as either robots, animals, or machines. Levin urged a move beyond such binary distinctions, stating, “These kinds of things don’t serve us very well. We need to get beyond that.”
How did the scientists make the tiny living anthrobots?
The research team utilized adult human cells from the trachea, or windpipe, obtained from anonymous donors of varying ages and sexes. The choice of tracheal cells was influenced by their accessibility, thanks to ongoing work related to Covid-19 and lung disease, and a distinctive feature—hairlike projections called cilia. These cilia, responsible for clearing particles from the air passages of the lungs, were manipulated to induce motion in the anthrobots.
Gizem Gumuskaya, a doctoral student at Tufts and coauthor of the study, experimented with the chemical composition of the tracheal cells’ growth conditions. She successfully encouraged the cilia to face outward on organoids, leading to their mobility after a few days. Gumuskaya described the process as a “blossoming flower,” with the cilia reorienting themselves by day seven.
The anthrobots, each originating from a single cell, exhibited diverse shapes and sizes, with some being spherical and fully covered in cilia, while others resembled football shapes with irregular cilia distribution. Their movements varied, ranging from straight lines to tight circles, showcasing a fascinating array of behaviors. Remarkably, these anthrobots survived up to 60 days under laboratory conditions.
The researchers are exploring potential medical applications for anthrobots, particularly in wound healing and tissue repair. Preliminary experiments involved observing the anthrobots’ interaction with human neurons grown in a lab dish that simulated damage. The anthrobots displayed unexpected behavior, encouraging growth toward the damaged region of the neurons.
Falk Tauber, a group leader at the University of Freiburg in Germany, praised the study for providing a foundation for future efforts in using bio-bots for various functions and forms. He noted the anthrobots’ “surprising behavior” in closing scratches in human neurons, suggesting potential applications both in the lab and, ultimately, within humans.
Levin assured that the anthrobots raised no ethical or safety concerns. Not derived from human embryos or genetically modified, these creations exist within a controlled environment and naturally biodegrade after a few weeks. The research marks a significant stride toward unlocking the potential of living robots for medical advancements.
For more information about this study, read the research article here, that was published in the journal Advanced Science.