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Frog skin cells turned themselves into living machines


sing blobs of skin cells from frog embryos, scientists have grown creatures unlike anything else on Earth, a new study reports. These microscopic “living machines” can swim, sweep up debris and heal themselves after a gash.


Scientists often strive to understand the world as it exists, says Jacob Foster, a collective intelligence researcher at UCLA not involved with this research. But the new study, published March 31 in Science Robotics, is part of a “liberating moment in the history of science,” Foster says. “A reorientation towards what is possible.”


In a way, the bots were self-made. Scientists removed small clumps of skin stem cells from frog embryos, to see what these cells would do on their own. Separated from their usual spots in a growing frog embryo, the cells organized themselves into balls and grew. About three days later, the clusters, called xenobots, began to swim.


Normally, hairlike structures called cilia on frog skin repel pathogens and spread mucus around. But on the xenobots, cilia allowed them to motor around. That surprising development “is a great example of life reusing what’s at hand,” says study coauthor Michael Levin, a biologist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.


And that process happens fast. “This isn’t some sort of effect where evolution has found a new use over hundreds of thousands of years,” Levin says. “This happens in front of your eyes within two or three days.”

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