Living robots

Philip Ball 
Nature Materials volume 19, page 265(2020)


The original ‘robots’, described in the 1921 play R.U.R. by the Czech writer Karel Čapek (the word is Czech for ‘labourer’) were not made from steel and controlled by electronics, but were fleshy and autonomous. Čapek’s manufacturing process, in which organs and other parts were made from vats of flesh-like dough and assembled into bodies, took inspiration from the emerging technology of in vivo tissue culture. It blurred the boundaries between engineering and biotechnology in a way that seemed far beyond the technologies of the time.


The results now reported by Kriegman et al. make this vision seem almost unnervingly prescient1. They describe ‘reconfigurable organisms’ made from living cells assembled into conglomerates about a millimetre across with arbitrary shapes, which are designed in silico for particular functions such as locomotion. These structures have been dubbed xenobots — which might be given the literal and apt interpretation of ‘strange robots’, although here ‘xeno’ comes from the use of embryonic stem cells of the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis as the construction material.