Biotechnology

What are xenobots and how will we share our bodies with them?

What are xenobots and how will we share our bodies with them?

From arterial transportation to tissue cleansing, xenobots are poised to become one of the most important breakthroughs in health innovation.

Had it happened a few months ago, the finding would have overshadowed any other biology-related news. But the paper was published in January 2020, when any reference to science necessarily went through the virus that would soon become a global pandemic. Even so, there was loud excitement in the scientific community about this breakthrough: for the first time, a group of scientists had created programmable living organisms. Living robots? Not quite.

The name chosen for these laboratory organisms was xenobots, a neologism formed by xeno—in memory of the species of African frog from which the cells that give rise to these beings originate (Xenopus laevis)—and by the suffix bot, which, although it does not quite fit to refer to a living organism, it does indicate that we are talking about a laboratory creation that can be programmed to perform a specific task.

The fact that this health innovation is halfway between biology and technology, reflects the mix of the creature’s own parents, a collaboration between the University of Vermont, in charge of the computational model on which the project is built, and Tufts University, whose researchers brought the model to life in the laboratory. Literally.

Origin and rationale for xenobots

The origin of xenobots is to be found in the African frog we already know, specifically, in its embryos. Stem cells are extracted from them, which are what molecular biology understands as a “wild card”: stem cells make it possible to generate other cells, which are specialized and whose behavior can be genetically programmed.

Despite their sad appearance as an irregular cube of 1 millimeter on a side, the xenobots that were presented after Christmas 2020 were already encouraging. On their own, they could move in a specific direction, carry tiny payloads, heal themselves and, on top of all that, disappear without a trace once dead. Not even their short one-week lifespan detracted one iota from the importance of this breakthrough. Well, a year later, in March, the same Vermont-Tufts team came up with news.

The 2021 xenobot not only retains everything the previous version had, but adds two very promising properties: it changes color when stimulated a certain way, indicating that it has minimal memory, and it is able to organize itself into swarms, thus expanding its applications.

What are the potential applications of xenobots in healthcare?

Xenobots are still at a very early stage of development: they do not always go where their parent-scientists have ordered them to go, they combine without quite knowing why (which is disturbing for alleged robots), and they keep getting stuck if they lose horizontality.

The main line of research is to use them to transport drugs inside living beings, including people. Thanks to their small size of 1 mm3, xenobots are not invasive in human-like scale organisms. Their self-healing capacity guarantees that they will not be destroyed along the way and their (quite relevant) biological origin ensures that, when they finish their work, they will die and biodegrade.

In addition to waste-free transportation through our organism, xenobots could also perform cleaning functions in arteries and tissues, acting as dragnets to trap microscopic filth. The same function they would perform in water to purify microplastics and other exogenous substances.

But for the moment, all this innovation in health is nothing more than long-term plans. Scientists prefer to concentrate on solving uncertainties, such as their tendency to organize themselves in swarms, and to explore their self-healing capacity and memory. Research is ongoing. We’ll see what news we hear next year from the universities of Vermont and Tufts.

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