Jan 22, 2022
JERUSALEM WEATHER

Share this article

Scientists who “created” a one-celled robot were shocked when it began to reproduce. The scientists were thrilled with the “xenobots” but a closer look through the lens of the Bible gives a different perspective.

Xenobots

In 2020, Scientists from the University of Vermont claimed to have made tiny programmable robots called xenobots that their creators claim are “entirely new life-forms”.

In a university news release, the researchers explained that they had “repurposed living cells—scraped from frog embryos—and assembled them into entirely new life-forms. “

“These are novel living machines,” said 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.”

The xenobots are named after their hosts, the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). Stem cells are taken from the frog embryos and incubated after which they are cut and reshaped into specific “body forms” designed by a supercomputer. The bodies are made up of individual cells, with skin cells forming the shell and muscle cells forming a “heart” and allowing the xenobots to move. They contain lipids and protein deposits to fuel their activities. 

The xenobots , looking like tiny blobs of flesh, are less than a millimeter (0.04 inches) wide and are able to move about by walking and swimming. They can be inserted into the human body in order to deliver a payload, such as a medicine that needs to be carried to a specific place inside a patient. The researchers claim the xenobots have certain abilities that, until now, were the domain of living organisms. According to the researchers, the xenobots are self-healing. They require food but can survive for weeks without. They can also cooperate as a group in larger tasks like cleaning up radioactive waste, collecting microplastics in the oceans, or even traveling into our arteries to scrape out plaque. 

“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.)”

Reproduction

But the xenobots surprised their creators when they began to reproduce, doing so in an entirely unexpected manner. 

“I was astounded by it,” said Michael Levin, a professor of biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University who was co-lead author of the new research.

“Frogs have a way of reproducing that they normally use but when you … liberate (the cells) from the rest of the embryo and you give them a chance to figure out how to be in a new environment, not only do they figure out a new way to move, but they also figure out apparently a new way to reproduce.”

The researchers sought to improve the efficiency of the xenobots by altering their shape. After testing many different shapes, the supercomputer came up with a C-shape that was able to find tiny stem cells in a petri dish and gather hundreds of them inside its mouth. A few days later the bundle of cells became new xenobots. The shape and the ability to produce more xenobots was an innovation of the computer program. 

“The AI didn’t program these machines in the way we usually think about writing code. It shaped and sculpted and came up with this Pac-Man shape. The shape is, in essence, the program,”  Josh Bongard, a computer science professor and robotics expert at the University of Vermont and lead author of the study, told CNN. “The shape influences how the xenobots behave to amplify this incredibly surprising process.”

The process, called kinetic replication, is a process that is known to occur at the molecular level but has never been observed before at the scale of whole cells or organisms. 

“One [xenobot] parent can begin a pile and then, by chance, a second parent can push more cells into that pile, and so on, generating the child,” Bongard told New Scientist. When a group of about 3,000 loose cells was collected by one of the C-shaped xenobots, the piles of cells formed copies of the original blob-shaped xenobots. The process requires about five days.

There is a limit to how many baby bots can be created.

“It turns out that these xenobots will replicate once, one generation, they will make children,” Bongard told the Guardian. “But the children are too small and weak to make grandchildren.”

The xenobots are carefully controlled and easily eliminated when the experiment is over by simply changing the sodium content of their environment or adding copper to the water.  

“The distinction between a robot and an organism is not nearly as sharp as … we used to think it was,” Levin told NPR. “These creatures, they have properties of both.”

The new technology and its unanticipated innovations are concerning to some. 

“Any time we try to harness life … [we should] recognize its potential to go really poorly,” Nita Farahany, a Duke University professor of law and philosophy, told Smithsonian Magazine. She emphasized that since there is no genetic material coming from the parent xenobot, the offspring can’t mutate or evolve on their own. 

Rabbi: Science cannot “create”

Rabbi Moshe Avraham Halperin of the Machon Mada’i Technology Al Pi Halacha (the Institute for Science and Technology According to Jewish Law), emphasized that the xenobots were not, in fact, “creations.”

“Scientists can rearrange but they cannot create something from nothing, as God did in Genesis,” Rabbi Halperin said. “The combined and manipulated existing material. That, we know, is impossible according to the Bible and even according to the laws of physics.”

“Even more, it is impossible for scientists to ‘create’ life,” Rabbi Halperin said. “Only God has that ability. Even the greatest atheists have been unable to refute this.”

The rabbi told a joke that illustrated the point:

A group of scientists approached God and said that mankind had no use for Him anymore as they had created life. God acknowledged that if this was true, then Man had truly become independent. But he requested a demonstration. The scientists mixed some mud with water and began to process it.

“Just a moment,” God said. “Bring your own mud and water. I made these.”

Rabbi Halperin pointed out that the research had additional theological issues. 

“Science is discovering wonderful cures and aids but not everything is permitted in every case,” the rabbi warned. “Certain combinations, mixing species, for example, are forbidden. Science is always exploring what Man is capable of accomplishing. The Torah shows us what is good and even worthy to do.”