ANTHROBOTS: Breakthrough from Michael Levin

Michael Levin at Tufts University has stumbled into a new universe. Today (30 Nov 2023) he released a new paper revealing that when nurtured outside the body, human lung cells can morph into autonomous organisms that can repair damaged nerve tissues. These creatures are called “Anthrobots.”

 Michael Levin at Tufts University has discovered “Anthrobots” – human tissue cells that self-organize as autonomous creatures.

Michael writes: “We envision many future uses in the human body – laying down pro-regenerative molecules, clearing plaque from arteries, healing spinal cord or retinal damage, dealing with cancer cells or bacteria in the gut, or informing us of the status of the surrounding tissues.

“It’s crucial to note that the effect we saw – healing the neuronal scratch – was not test #78 out of hundreds of things we attempted. This was one of the first assays we tried.”

Michael’s team removed lung cells, fed them and gave them time to develop. The cells re-shaped themselves; and the cells’ cilia, the little hairs that normally push dirt and mucous on the surface of the lung, developed into organs for propelling these cells. They are highly mobile.

Levin’s team had wanted to see if normal human lung cells could build themselves into a new structure that could move around on its own. They had already successfully done this with frog embryo cells, which they call Xenobots.

They took lung cells from adults and grew them into little balls called spheroids. At first the spheroids just sat there, but after changing the environment around them the spheroids started moving!

Levin calls these moving spheroids “Anthrobots.” Most Anthrobots were between 30 and 500 microns wide, about the thickness of a hair. They moved by waving tiny hairs on their surface called cilia, similar to how parasites move. Some Anthrobots moved in tight circles while others went in straight lines or curved paths. Their speed ranged from 5 to 50 microns per second.

His team looked closer at around 200 Anthrobots to understand why they moved differently. They saw four main movement types – circular, linear, curvy, and irregular. Over 30 seconds the circular Anthrobots followed the most consistent paths while the irregular ones changed direction the most. Circular bots rarely switched to moving in a straight line, showing they preferred that motion.

When the researchers stained and scanned 350 Anthrobots, they found differences in their shapes and cilia patterns. Statistics showed there were three main “morphotypes” – small spherical bots with dense, evenly spread cilia; larger irregularly shaped bots with scattered cilia; and medium bots with patchy cilia.

Further tests revealed links between an Anthrobot’s movement type and morphotype. The non-moving spheroids matched the small, spherical morphotype. Linear moving Anthrobots fit with the large, irregular kind, while circling bots matched the medium, patchy type. The findings suggest an Anthrobot’s final structure leads to specific motion abilities.

Interestingly, the linear Anthrobots showed higher left-right symmetry than the circular ones. This matches many natural species that tend to be symmetrical along their movement axis. This experiment demonstrates the cells can spontaneously adopt key features of mobile lifeforms without direct genetic changes.

To see how Anthrobots interact with living tissues, the researchers put them into scratched sheets of human brain cells grown in dishes. Amazingly, the Anthrobots could efficiently travel across the scratches. Circular bots covered more scratch area while faster bots followed the edges more closely.

Most surprising was that some Anthrobots physically connected separated sides of scratch wounds in the brain cell sheets. This induced the cells to regenerate a tissue bridge between the cut edges.

Further tests showed the repaired areas had the same density as undamaged parts of the cell sheet. This healing was unique to where the Anthrobots had settled and did not happen elsewhere along the scratches.

To summarize, the lung cells could construct themselves into several types of motile spheres with different movement styles. Their final architecture was strongly linked to how they spontaneously moved afterwards. The Anthrobots also showed behaviors like symmetry and wound-healing abilities that mirror natural mobile species, despite having unaltered human genes.

This reveals the remarkable flexibility of cells to assemble into complex living structures with unexpected functions beyond their original tissues. Studying synthetic living systems uncovers hidden potentials of biology for applications like biomedically-useful mini-robots.

Like I said, Levin and his team have stumbled into a new universe. This article only hints at a smattering of applications from ONE kind of human tissue. I believe this represents an entire new branch of physiology and it challenges decades of assumptions about what life is and how it works. This is a Nobel Prize level discovery.

I highly recommend you read Michael Levin’s own blog post about this discovery:

Meet the Anthrobots: a new living entity with much to teach us

Read the full paper “Motile Living Biobots Self-Construct from Adult Human Somatic Progenitor Seed Cells”

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