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Longevity Briefs: Building Better Biological Machines

Posted on 10 May 2021

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: We have been able to build robot swarms out of artificial materials, but what about doing the same thing with living cells? A group of ‘biological robots’, capable of moving and acting on their own, could be used for purposes like clearing waterways or perhaps removing fatty deposits from our arteries. Biological constructs with the ability to move have already been built by growing muscle cells on scaffold-like structures. The ultimate goal would be to develop these constructs into self-directed living machines capable of carrying out a desired functinon, but this has proven difficult to achieve.

What did the researchers do: In this study, scientists were able to make biological machines without the use of scaffolds to direct their growth. Scientists removed skin stem cells from frog embryos to be grown on their own. Separated from their usual growing environment within the frog embryo, these cells organized themselves and grew over the course of 3 days into clusters, called xenobots, and began to swim.

animation of swarming xenobots
 A swarm of xenobots (bright spots) swims around and pushes small particles. DOUGLAS BLACKISTON

Key takeaway(s) from this research: The xenobots were able to swim by themselves thanks to hairlike structures called cilia on their surfaces. Each about half a millimeter wide, these organisms have a variety of useful properties: they can swim through very small gaps and mazes, can heal themselves after being cut, and can even ‘sweep’ iron oxide into piles. Scientists are still studying xenobot behaviour and figuring out how they might be used in practice.

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