Forget gleaming metal droids — the robots of the future may have more in common with the average amphibian than with R2D2.
A team of scientists have found a way to not just program a living organism, but to build brand new life-forms from scratch using cells, creating what researchers are calling “xenobots.”
Tiny in size, but vast in potential, these millimetre-sized bots could potentially be programmed to help in medical procedures, ocean cleanup and investigating dangerous compounds, among other things.
“They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal,” said researcher Joshua Bongard in a news release. “It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
In the introduction for the research published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS) on Monday, researchers point out that the traditional building blocks we’ve used for robots and tech — steel, plastic, chemicals, etc. — all “degrade over time and can produce harmful ecological and health side-effects.”
After realizing that the best “self-renewing and biocompatible materials” would be “living systems themselves,” researchers decided to create a method “that designs completely biological machines from the ground up.”
The bots are made out of stem cells taken from frog embryos — specifically, an African clawed frog called “xenopus laevis,” which supplied the inspiration for the name “xenobot.” To design the xenobots, the possible configurations of different cells were first modeled on a supercomputer at the University of Vermont.
The designs then went to Tufts University, where the embryonic cells were collected and separated to develop into more specialized cells. Then, like sculptors (if sculptors used microsurgery forceps and electrodes), biologists manually shaped the cells into clumps that matched the computer designs.
Different structures were sketched out by the computer in accordance with the scientists’ goal for each xenobot.
For example, one xenobot was designed to be able to move purposely in a specific direction. To achieve this, researchers put cardiac cells on the bottom of the xenobot. These cells naturally contract and expand on their own, meaning that they could serve as the xenobots’ engine, or legs, and help move the rest of the organism, which was built out of more static skin cells.
In order to test if the living robots were truly moving the way they were designed to, and not just randomly, researchers performed a test that has stumped many a living creature.
They flipped the robot on its back. And just like a capsized turtle, it could no longer move.
When researchers created further designs for the bots, they found that they could design them to push microscopic objects, and even carry objects through a pouch.
“It’s a step toward using computer-designed organisms for intelligent drug delivery,” says Bongard.
The possible uses for these tiny robots are numerous, researchers say.
“In biomedical settings, one could envision such biobots (made from the patient’s own cells) removing plaque from artery walls, identifying cancer, or settling down to differentiate or control events in locations of disease,” the research paper suggests.
A robot made out of metal or steel generally has to be repaired by human hands if it sustains damage. One major benefit that researchers found of creating these robots out of living cells was how they reacted to physical damage.
A video taken by the researchers showed that when one of their organisms was cut almost in half by metal tweezers, the two sides of the wound simply stitched itself back together.
These living robots, researchers realized, could repair themselves automatically, “something you can’t do with typical machines,” Bongard said.
Because they are living cells, they are also naturally biodegradable, Bongard pointed out. Once they’ve fulfilled their purpose, “they’re just dead skin cells,” making them even more optimal for usage in medical or environmental research.
Although scientists have been increasingly manipulating genetics and biology, this is the first time that a programmable organism has been created from scratch, researchers say.
This new research takes scientists a step closer to answering just how different cells work together to execute all of the complex processes that occur every day in animals and humans.
“The big question in biology is to understand the algorithms that determine form and function,” said co-leader Michael Levin in the press release. He directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts.
“What actually determines the anatomy towards which cells co-operate?” he asked. “You look at the cells we’ve been building our xenobots with, and, genomically, they’re frogs. It’s 100 per cent frog DNA — but these are not frogs. Then you ask, well, what else are these cells capable of building? As we’ve shown, these frog cells can be coaxed to make interesting living forms that are completely different from what their default anatomy would be.”
Of course, a biological organism created and programmed by humans which is capable of healing itself might sound a little alarming. After all, one of the sponsors of the research is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is affiliated with the U.S. military.
Researchers acknowledged in the press release that the implications around such technological and biological advancements can be worrying at times.
“That fear is not unreasonable,” Levin said. However, he believes that in order to move forward with science, we should not hold back from complex questions. “This study is a direct contribution to getting a handle on what people are afraid of, which is unintended consequences.
“I think it’s an absolute necessity for society going forward to get a better handle on systems where the outcome is very complex,” Levin says. “A first step towards doing that is to explore: how do living systems decide what an overall behavior should be and how do we manipulate the pieces to get the behaviors we want?”
First direct evidence of ocean mixing across the Gulf Stream – Phys.org
New research provides the first direct evidence for the Gulf Stream blender effect, identifying a new mechanism of mixing water across the swift-moving current. The results have important implications for weather, climate and fisheries because ocean mixing plays a critical role in these processes. The Gulf Stream is one of the largest drivers of climate and biological productivity from Florida to Newfoundland and along the western coast of Europe.
The multi-institutional study led by a University of Maryland researcher revealed that churning along the edges of the Gulf Stream across areas as small as a kilometer could be a leading source of ocean mixing between the waters on either side of the current. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 6, 2020.
“This long-standing debate about whether the Gulf Stream acts as a blender or a barrier to ocean mixing has mainly considered big ocean eddies, tens of kilometers to a hundred kilometers across,” said Jacob Wenegrat, an assistant professor in UMD’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science and the lead author of the study. “What we’re adding to this debate is this new evidence that variability at the kilometer scale seems to be doing a lot of mixing. And those scales are really hard to monitor and model.”
As the Gulf Stream courses its way up the east coast of the U.S. and Canada, it brings warm salty water from the tropics into the north Atlantic. But the current also creates an invisible wall of water that divides two distinct ocean regions: the colder, fresher waters along the northern edge of the Gulf Stream that swirl in a counterclockwise direction, and the warmer, saltier waters on the southern edge of the current that circulate in a clockwise direction.
How much ocean mixing occurs across the Gulf Stream has been a matter of scientific debate. As a result, ocean models that predict climate, weather and biological productivity have not fully accounted for the contribution of mixing between the two very different types of water on either side of the current.
To conduct the study, the researchers had to take their instruments to the source: the edge of the Gulf Stream. Two teams of scientists aboard two global-class research vessels braved winter storms on the Atlantic Ocean to release a fluorescent dye along the northern front of the Gulf Stream and trace its path over the following days.
The first team released the dye along with a float containing an acoustic beacon. Downstream, the second team tracked the float and monitored the concentration of dye along with water temperature, salinity, chemistry and other features.
Back on shore, Wenegrat and his coauthors developed high-resolution simulations of the physical processes that could cause the dye to disperse through the water in the manner the field teams recorded. Their results showed that turbulence across areas as small as a kilometer exerted an important influence on the dye’s path and resulted in significant mixing of water properties such as salinity and temperature.
“These results emphasize the role of variability at very small scales that are currently hard to observe using standard methods, such as satellite observations,” Wenegrat said. “Variability at this scale is not currently resolved in global climate models and won’t be for decades to come, so it leads us to wonder, what have we been missing?”
By showing that small-scale mixing across the Gulf Stream may have a significant impact, the new study reveals an important, under-recognized contributor to ocean circulation, biology and potentially climate.
For example, the Gulf Stream plays an important role in what’s known as the ocean biological pump—a system that traps excess carbon dioxide, buffering the planet from global warming. In the surface waters of the Gulf Stream region, ocean mixing influences the growth of phytoplankton—the base of the ocean food web. These phytoplankton absorb carbon dioxide near the surface and later sink to the bottom, taking carbon with them and trapping it in the deep ocean. Current models of the ocean biological pump don’t account for the large effect small-scale mixing across the Gulf Stream could have on phytoplankton growth.
“To make progress on this we need to find ways to quantify these processes on a finer scale using theory, state-of-the-art numerical models and new observational techniques,” Wenegrat said. “We need to be able to understand their impact on large-scale circulation and biogeochemistry of the ocean.”
The research paper, “Enhanced mixing across the gyre boundary at the Gulf Stream front,” Jacob O. Wenegrat, Leif N. Thomas, Miles A. Sundermeyer, John R. Taylor, Eric A. D’Asaro, Jody M. Klymak, R. Kipp Shearman, and Craig M. Lee, was published in the July 6, 2020 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Jacob O. Wenegrat el al., “Enhanced mixing across the gyre boundary at the Gulf Stream front,” PNAS (2020). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.2005558117
University of Maryland
First direct evidence of ocean mixing across the Gulf Stream (2020, July 6)
retrieved 6 July 2020
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Strange pink snow in the Italian Alps might be a red flag – CNET
Pink snow, also called “watermelon snow,” has appeared at the Presena glacier in northern Italy, according to researcher Biagio Di Mauro of the Institute of Polar Sciences at Italy’s National Research Council. While it’s not uncommon for the Italian alps to be “pretty in pink” in spring and summer, scientists become cautious when the phenomenon, which is caused by algae, starts happening more frequently.
Di Mauro told CNN that 2020’s lack of snowfall and higher temperatures have nurtured the algae’s growth. More algae could lead to ice melting faster.
When Di Mauro tweeted clarification for an article from The Guardian, he said the algae was probably Chlamydomonas nivalis, a snow algae. He also said the algae’s relationship with climate change hasn’t been proven yet.
Di Mauro tweeted photos of the pink snow on Monday.
Across the ocean, in late May,, caused by microscopic algae. Though microscopic, the green blooms could be spotted by satellites. The color might also have connections with the impact of warming climates, researchers said.
Canadarm3 will help pave way for Canadian boots on moon, and maybe Mars, Space Agency says – National Post
When humankind makes its long-awaited return to our nearest celestial neighbour, Canada will lend a hand. Literally.
The Canadian Space Agency has recently announced that our nation and the Brampton, Ontario-based company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, will design and build Canadarm3, a new robotic arm for use aboard the U.S.-led Lunar Gateway. In 1999 the company purchased Spar Aerospace, which developed the first two arms, also known as remote manipulator systems or RMS.
“We will be the masters of robotics on Gateway,” says Gilles Leclerc, whose enthusiasm for the project is matched only by his out-of-this-world job title of Director General, Space Exploration, Canadian Space Agency.
The Lunar Gateway, slated to begin construction in 2023, is a small space station that will remain in lunar orbit, providing a rendezvous location for ships travelling from the Earth to the moon, as well as landers on their way to the lunar surface. It could also be used as a staging area for future crewed flights to Mars.
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