Cells Form Into ‘Xenobots’ on Their Own

April 2, 2021

(Quanta Magazine) – Early last year, the biologist Michael Levin and his colleagues offered a glimpse of how versatile living matter can be. Levin and Douglas Blackiston, a member of his laboratory at the Allen Discovery Center of Tufts University, brought together nascent skin and muscle cells from a frog embryo and shaped the multicelled assemblies by hand. This sculpting process was guided by an algorithm developed by the computer scientists Josh Bongard and Sam Kriegman of the University of Vermont, which searched for simulated arrangements of the two cell types capable of organized movement. One design, for example, had two twitching leglike stumps on the bottom for pushing itself along. The researchers let the cell clusters assemble in the right proportions and then used micro-manipulation tools to move or eliminate cells — essentially poking and carving them into shapes like those recommended by the algorithm. The resulting cell clusters showed the predicted ability to move over a surface in a nonrandom way.