Scientists announced that they have created a ‘xenobot’; an organic robot made from a frog’s stem cells. The project raises theological concerns about creating new life forms, the exclusive purview of God, and practical concerns about what will happen when this living robot is injected into the human body.
Xenobots: Singel-Cell Robots or “New Life-Form”?
Scientists at Tufts University’s Allen Discovery Center at the University of Vermont recently announced that they had succeeded in making organic robots made from stem cells scraped from frog embryos, separated into single cells, and incubated. The cells were cut and reshaped into specific “body forms” designed by a supercomputer.
Named xenobots for the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) that was the donor of the cells, the newly “created” robots are self-healing and are one millimeter wide, small enough to travel inside human bodies. They are multi-skilled, able to walk and swim, survive for weeks without food, living on lipid and protein deposits, though they can’t reproduce or evolve. The scientists envision injecting the xenobots into a patient where it can pick up a payload, like a medicine, and deliver it to a specific place inside a patient.
In a clear burst of hubris, the researchers declared the xenobots to be “entirely new life-forms…never seen in nature.” They claim this is the first time science “design[ed] completely biological machines from the ground up.”
“These are novel living machines,” says Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont who co-led the new research. “They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
“We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can’t do,” says co-leader Michael Levin who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts, “like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering microplastic in the oceans, traveling in arteries to scrape out plaque.”
Initial tests showed the single-celled xenobots moving on their own for up to weeks at a time, powered by embryonic energy stores. This motion was enhanced by a hole punched through the center to reduce drag which the researchers speculated could be used to carry a payload.
Though sci-fi scenarios usually portray steel and plastic automatons, the researchers noted that organically based robots have distinct advantages.
“The downside of living tissue is that it’s weak and it degrades,” Bongard said to the UVM news. “That’s why we use steel. But organisms have 4.5 billion years of practice at regenerating themselves and going on for decades. These xenobots are fully biodegradable. When they’re done with their job after seven days, they’re just dead skin cells.”
“We sliced the robot almost in half and it stitches itself back up and keeps going,” says Bongard. “And this is something you can’t do with typical machines.”
“As we’ve shown, these frog cells can be coaxed to make interesting living forms that are completely different from what their default anatomy would be,” Levin said.
“Man Does Not Have Permission to Create New Life-Form”
Rabbi Moshe Avraham Halperin of the Machon Mada’i Technology Al Pi Halacha (the Institute for Science and Technology According to Jewish Law), explained that the Biblical guidelines for creating new living creatures are clear.
“Even though saving a life is a very high mitzvah, there are limits,” Rabbi Halperin explained. He noted that this is even explicitly stated in the Hippocratic oath historically taken by physicians. “If the Torah had not given permission to a physician, much of what they do would be forbidden. The physician is influencing the body of someone else. This permission is limited to repairing illness and does not extend to creating new things.”
“This is expressed in many commandments in the Bible and most clearly in the prohibition of mixing species of plants and animals,” Rabbi Halperin said, citing several examples in the Bible.
You shall observe My laws. You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material. Leviticus 19:19
You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, else the crop—from the seed you have sown—and the yield of the vineyard may not be used. Deuteronomy 22:9
New Life Forms Pose Unknown Dangers
“To create a new creature, the Torah explicitly forbids,” Rabbi Halperin said. “But this can also be understood by logic. A new creature may turn on its creator. With finite knowledge, scientists do not know all of the potential outcomes of their creation.”
“If the new creature reproduces, this is already outside of the limits of the knowledge and expectations of the scientists,” Rabbi Halperin said.
The researchers admitted as much, saying that the project posed a danger of generating unforeseen and unwanted results.
“That fear is not unreasonable,” Levin says. “When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don’t understand, we’re going to get unintended consequences.”
These concerns were somewhat muted on the researchers’ website which stated ambiguously that “at the moment though it is difficult to see how an AI could create harmful organisms any easier than a talented biologist with bad intentions could.”
Highlighting the destructive aspect of the project was recognized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a federal agency that oversees the development of technology for military use, which partially funded the project.
Scientists Dream of Xenobots as Key to Eternal Youth
The researchers also envision their creation melding with humans and eliminating death.
“If we could make 3D biological form on demand, we could repair birth defects, reprogram tumors into normal tissue, regenerate after traumatic injury or degenerative disease, and defeat aging,” said the researchers’ website. This research could have “a massive impact on regenerative medicine (building body parts and inducing regeneration.)”
Rabbi Halperin was less concerned about the negative Biblical implications of the xenobots.
“This will not overcome death nor will it be in any way similar to the resurrection of the dead which are entirely within God’s realm,” Rabbi Halperin said. “Though introducing an ‘entirely new life form never before seen in nature’, as they claim, into the human body may be therapeutic but it may also be damaging.”