Robotics: Small living robots made from human cells surprised scientists

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Scientists have created small living robots made of human cells that can move In a laboratory dish, it may one day be able to help heal wounds or damaged tissue, according to a new study.

A team from Tufts University and the Wyss Institute at Harvard University called these creations “robots.” The research is based on previous work by some of the same scientists who have done this The first living robotsor xenobots, are made from stem cells sourced from embryos of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis).

“Some people thought the traits of xenobots depended a lot on the fact that they were embryonic and amphibious,” said study author Michael Levin, the Vannevar Bush University Professor of Biology in the Tufts College of Arts and Sciences.

“I don’t think this has anything to do with being a fetus. This has nothing to do with being a frog. I think this is a more general property of living things.”

“We don’t realize all the competencies that the body’s cells have.”

While they were alive, robots were not complete organisms because they did not have complete beings life cycle, Levin said.

“It reminds us of these harsh binary categories that we’ve dealt with: Is this a robot, is this an animal, is this a machine? These kinds of things don’t serve us well. We need to get past that.”

The research was published on Thursday in Advanced Science Journal.

The scientists used adult human cells from the trachea, or windpipe, from anonymous donors of different ages and sex. Gizem, co-author of the study, said researchers focused on this type of cell because it is relatively easy to access due to work on coronavirus and lung disease, and, more importantly, because of the feature that scientists believe makes the cells motile. Gumoskaya, a doctoral student at Tufts University.

Tracheal cells are covered with hair-like protrusions called cilia, which wave back and forth. They normally help bronchial cells push out small particles that find their way into the airways in the lungs. Previous studies have also shown that cells can form organoids, clumps of cells widely used in research.

Gomoskaya experimented with the chemical composition and growth conditions of tracheal cells, and found a way to encourage cilia to point outward on organoids. Once they found the right matrix, the organelles became mobile after a few days, with the cilia acting somewhat like paddles.

“Nothing happened on day one or day two or day four or five, but as biology usually does, around day seven, there was a rapid turnaround,” she said. “It was like a blooming flower. By the seventh day, the cilia had flipped over and were on the outside.

“In our method, each robot grows from a single cell.”

This self-assembly is what makes it unique. The biological robots were made by other scientists, but they were handcrafted by making a mold and seed cells to live on top of, Levine said.

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Gizem Gumuskaya, Tufts University

Each robot grows from a single cell.

Different shapes and sizes

The robots the team created were not identical.

Some were spherical and completely covered with cilia, while others were football-shaped and irregularly covered with cilia. They also moved in different ways — some in straight lines, others in tight circles, while others sat and rocked, according to a press release about the study. They have survived up to 60 days in laboratory conditions.

Levine and Gomoskaya said the experiments described in this latest study are still at an early stage, but the goal is to see if the robots could have medical applications. To see if such applications were possible, the researchers examined whether robots were able to move over human neurons grown in a laboratory dish that had been “scratched” to mimic damage.

They were surprised to see the robots encourage growth in the damaged area of ​​neurons, although researchers do not yet understand why this is the case. The study indicated a healing mechanism.

Falk Tauber, group leader at the Freiburg Center for Interactive Materials and Biotechnologies at the University of Freiburg in Germany, said the study provided a basis for future efforts to use biorobots for different jobs and make them into different shapes.

Gizem Gumuskaya, Tufts University

The robot, in green, grows by scratching through neural tissue, in red.

Tauber, who was not involved in the research, said the robots showed “surprising behavior,” especially when they moved through scratches in human neurons and eventually shut them down.

The ability to create these structures from a patient’s own cells suggests diverse applications both in the laboratory and perhaps eventually within humans, he said.

Levin said he does not believe the robots pose any ethical or safety concerns. He said they are not made from human embryos, highly research-restricted, or genetically modified in any way.

“They have a very restricted environment that they live in, so there is no possibility that they will somehow escape or survive outside the laboratory. They cannot live outside of that very specific environment,” he said. “They have a normal life span, so after a few weeks, they biodegrade smoothly.” ”

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