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The 'xenobot' is the world's newest robot — and it's made from living animal cells – CTV News



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?”

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Scientists detect biggest explosion since Big Bang – BBC News



Scientists have detected evidence for a colossal explosion in space – five times bigger than anything observed before.

The huge release of energy is thought to have emanated from a supermassive black hole some 390 million light years from Earth.

The eruption is said to have left a giant dent in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster.

Researchers reported their findings in The Astrophysical Journal.

They had long thought there was something strange about Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, which is a giant aggregation containing thousands of individual galaxies intermingled with hot gas and dark matter. X-ray telescopes had spied a curious curved edge to it.

The speculation was that this might be the wall of a cavity that had been sculpted in its gas by emissions from a central black hole.

Black holes are famous for gorging on infalling matter, but they will also expel prodigious amounts of material and energy in the form of jets.

Scientists at first doubted their explanation however, because the cavity was so big; you could fit 15 of our own Milky Way galaxies in a row into the hole.

And that meant any black hole explosion would have to have been unimaginably prodigious.

But new telescope data from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Australia and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India seem to confirm it.

“In some ways, this blast is similar to how the eruption of Mount St Helens (volcano) in 1980 ripped off the top of the mountain,” said Simona Giacintucci of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, and lead author of the study.

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Astronomers have discovered the biggest explosion seen in the universe – CBC.ca



Astronomers have discovered the biggest explosion seen in the universe, originating from a super-massive black hole.

Scientists reported Thursday that the blast came from a black hole in a cluster of galaxies 390 million light-years away.

The explosion was so large it carved out a crater in the hot gas that could hold 15 Milky Ways, said lead author Simona Giacintucci of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.

It’s five times bigger than the previous record holder.

Astronomers used NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory to make the discovery, along with a European space observatory and ground telescopes. They believe the explosion came from the heart of the Ophiuchus cluster of thousands of galaxies: a large galaxy at the centre contains a colossal black hole.

First hint of explosion came 4 years ago

Black holes don’t just draw matter in. They also blast out jets of material and energy.

The first hint of this giant explosion actually came in 2016. Chandra images of the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster revealed an unusual curved edge, but scientists ruled out an eruption given the amount of energy that would have been needed to carve out such a large cavity in the gas.

The two space observatories, along with radio data from telescopes in Australia and India, confirmed that the curvature was, indeed, part of a cavity.

“The radio data fit inside the X-rays like a hand in a glove,” co-author Maxim Markevitch, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in a statement. “This is the clincher that tells us an eruption of unprecedented size occurred here.”

The blast is believed to be over by now: There are no signs of jets currently shooting from the black hole.

More observations are needed in other wavelengths to better understand what occurred, according to the team.

The findings appeared in the Astrophysical Journal.

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A New Mini-Moon Was Found Orbiting Earth. There Will Be More. – The New York Times



Earth gets a new moon most months, but this month, we got two.

About 4 a.m. on Feb. 15 at the Mount Lemmon Observatory, 9,000 feet above Tucson, two astronomers from the Catalina Sky Survey, Kacper Wierzchos and Theodore Pruyne, watched as their computer screens registered a dot moving against a static background of stars.

“It didn’t seem to be any different than the other near-Earth asteroids that we discover,” Dr. Wierzchos said, “except that it was found to be orbiting Earth instead of the sun.”

If the discovery holds up, the object, named 2020 CD3 for now, would be the second mini-moon ever found.

The solar system is full of primordial crumbs, most of which circle the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Sometimes, Jupiter’s gravitational influence sends those space rocks careening toward the inner solar system, where some could threaten Earth. While they orbit near us, they don’t orbit us. That’s what makes 2020 CD3 so rare. Around 18 months to a year ago, the Earth-moon system’s gravity captured the tiny rock in an orbital dance.

Ephemeral Earth companions may be very common, according to Michele Bannister, an astronomer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“They are orbiting roughly the same space that we are, and some will get into the right spot where it can nudge into a ballet with us. And then it’s like any dance: you do a couple spins together, and go your separate ways,” she says. “There’s something beautifully transient about it.”

Astronomers at the Minor Planet Center, an international body that tracks asteroid discoveries, announced the find on Tuesday. With only a few nights of data, it’s too early to say exactly what 2020 CD3 is made of. But many astronomers are convinced it is not a leftover from a rocket launch or other human activity.

It might be the size of a small car. “It would probably fit in a bedroom, even in San Francisco or New York,” says Alessondra Springmann, an astronomer at the University of Arizona.

More observations will help astronomers determine when it arrived. But it is expected to leave’s Earth’s orbit in about two weeks, says Paul Chodas, who directs NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies.

“We’re catching this little guy on its way out,” he said.

Earth shares its neighborhood with a coterie of objects. “Quasi-moons” are asteroids that orbit the sun but are close enough to Earth to seem like tiny moons moving backward. “Horseshoe” asteroids circle the sun, but Earth’s gravity shoos them away from our planet and forces them into odd U-shaped orbits. Two clouds of charged dust particles, known as the Kordylewski clouds, are parked in a gravitational nexus between Earth and moon. And Earth has one known Trojan asteroid, a rock that stays with a planet, leading or trailing its annual march. But none of these are true satellites like the moon, or now 2020 CD3.

The previous moonlet orbited Earth in 2006 and 2007 before rejoining its fellow asteroids. Some observers initially thought that object, designated 2006 RH120, was a piece of a rocket booster from the Apollo 12 mission, but astronomers eventually determined it was a rock. It’s expected to return in August 2028.

Some amateur observers said 2020 CD3 might also be space junk. But a piece of rocket would move differently through space, Dr. Chodas says.

Astronomers are scrambling to swing as much glass as they can toward the object to determine its nature, but Dr. Chodas says 2020 CD3 is growing dimmer and will likely be too faint to see by June.

Whatever happens to 2020 CD3, it will not be the last space rock to join the moon around Earth. When the forthcoming Vera Rubin Observatory begins taking pictures of the entire sky, astronomers might be able to find a new mini-moon every few months, according to an analysis by Grigori Fedorets, an astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast. At any given time, the Earth probably hosts a mini-moon two feet across, and every decade or so it captures a moonlet as large as 2020 CD3, Dr. Fedorets said.

It will take that telescope, and other proposed space missions, to spot them all, said Amy Mainzer, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who leads a team designing a new satellite called the Near Earth Object Surveillance Mission.

“We can only see what we have the technology to see. And necessarily, that’s not everything all of the time,” she said.

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