Scientists invent ‘living’ robots
The discovery shows human technology can’t surpass God’s design
Researchers have refashioned frog stem cells into tiny robots that can move purposefully and heal themselves if injured. University of Vermont computer scientist Joshua Bongard admitted his team turned to biological organisms because life contains a complex artistry human technology cannot replicate. “There’s all of this innate creativity in life,” he said.
The 1-millimeter-wide robots, called xenobots, are “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal,” Bongard said. “It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
In the study, published Jan. 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers harvested stem cells from African frog embryos, separated them into single cells, and incubated them. A computer generated thousands of possible designs for the xenobots and then used hundreds of simulations to find what combination of cells and body shapes would accomplish the behavior scientists wanted to achieve.
When the scientists cut and joined the cells according to the computer-specified design, the cells began to work together to form a support structure. Contracting heart muscle cells, for example, provided forward motion. The robots also demonstrated the ability to spontaneously move on their own.
The xenobots can also regenerate. When the researchers sliced the robots in half, they stitched themselves back together and continued moving. The bots eventually biodegrade into dead skin cells after they complete their job.
The scientists envision that “living” robots could one day deliver medicine to a specific part of the body, identify cancer, scrape plaque buildup out of arteries, and perform internal surgery. They could also search out or ingest toxic waste, radioactive contamination, or microplastics in the ocean.
But the new technology poses risks. Many people voice concerns about rapid technological developments that manipulate biological organisms. “That fear is not unreasonable,” Michael Levin, a co-lead researcher said. “When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don’t understand, we’re going to get unintended consequences.”
Only time and further research will tell us what will become of this invention. But this study does highlight that even secular researchers find the fingerprint of complex creativity in all living organisms. Evolutionary theory cannot explain it, and human technology cannot reproduce it. “Living systems are more robust, diverse, complex, and supportive of human life than any technology yet created,” the research team wrote.
Gravitational sneaker waves
Astronomers have no idea what caused a mysterious burst of gravitational waves that hit the Earth on Jan. 14. The burst lasted only 14 milliseconds, but all three laser interferometer gravitational wave observatories on Earth identified it from their locations in Italy, Louisiana, and Washington state.
The collision of massive celestial objects such as black holes or neutron stars can produce gravitational waves. But those waves typically last longer and come in a series, rather than a burst. They also change frequency as the objects move closer to one another, Andy Howell, a staff scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory in Goleta, Calif., told Live Science.
Some astronomers speculate the supergiant star Betelgeuse, which mysteriously dimmed recently, may have sent the signal. Scientists think Betelgeuse might be headed for a supernova explosion, an event that takes place when a star dies. But that can’t explain the burst since the star hasn’t exploded at this point, Howell noted. Supernovas only occur about once a century in our galaxy, so it’s unlikely another one caused the burst. Supernovas also usually release neutrinos, and astronomers didn’t detect any in the gravitational waves.
A merger of medium-sized black holes could produce bursts or a series of waves, Howell said. The observatory detectors might also have experienced a meaningless blip, but that seems unlikely since all three picked up the signal.
“The universe always surprises us,” Howell said. “There could be totally new astronomical events out there that produce gravitational waves that we haven’t really thought about.” —J.B.
Universal cancer therapy
Researchers at Cardiff University in Wales discovered a new type of T-cell that may offer a treatment for a wide variety of cancers.
Current T-cell therapies involve removing the immune cells, modifying them, and then returning them to the patient’s blood to seek and destroy cancer cells. The most widely used type of T-cell therapy, CSR-T, can target only a few types of the disease and cannot treat solid tumors, which make up the vast majority of cancers.
But the newly discovered T-cells carry a new type of receptor, TCR, that recognizes and kills most human cancers without damaging healthy cells.
In the study, published in Nature Immunology on Jan. 20, the new cells killed blood, bone, breast, cervical, colon, lung, ovarian, prostate, and skin cancer cells.
The researchers hope to begin human clinical trials by the end of this year. Further safety trials will verify that T-cells with TCR recognize only cancer cells.
“There are plenty of hurdles to overcome, however, if this testing is successful, then I would hope this new treatment could be in use in patients in a few years’ time,” said Andrew Sewell, lead author of the study. —J.B.
Low literacy in ancient Israel
Scientists recently used artificial intelligence to analyze 2,800-year-old Hebrew inscriptions from fragments of clay unearthed at the site of Samaria, the ancient capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.
In the new study, published Jan. 22 in PLOS One, a computer analysis of the handwriting on 31 of the more than 100 clay fragments showed that only two scribes wrote all the texts. The data suggests, just as the Bible records, that northern Israel’s monarchy had a centralized bureaucracy in Samaria. But it appears literacy remained rare. “It was probably limited to the capital, to the palace, and perhaps the priests,” Israel Finkelstein, one of Israel’s leading Biblical archaeologists, told Haaretz.
The inscriptions, which span at least seven years during the reign of one king, appeared mainly to record the arrival of oil, wine, and other goods from nearby villages. The texts do not mention the ruler’s name, but based on the shape of the letters, experts date them to the first half of the eighth century B.C., which, according to the Bible, would place them during the time of Joash or his son Jeroboam II. —J.B.
U.S. Army researchers have developed a gene therapy that offers long-lasting protection against nerve agents when injected into mice.
The study, published Jan. 22 in Science Translational Medicine, found that mice who underwent the gene therapy survived nine normally lethal injections of nerve agents over six weeks. The protection remained stable for the entire five months of the experiment, and the mice showed no sign of toxicity, Science magazine reported.
At this point, humans receiving the therapy would risk developing a harmful immune response. But if the treatment can pass human safety trials, it could potentially protect soldiers, first responders, and military dogs from chemical weapons, along with farmworkers at risk of exposure to nerve agents in pesticides. —J.B.
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