Hey Nanotech Enthusiasts! This week, our special guests are two remarkable scientists from a team that pioneered a groundbreaking innovation in robotics and synthetic biology. Josh Bongard and Doug Blackiston are two of the brilliant minds behind xenobots. These biological machines made from cells have captured worldwide attention and created a new design paradigm for engineering with active materials.
Welcome, Josh and Doug! Tell us about yourselves. What inspired you to get into STEM?
Josh: I’m a computer scientist. Like many kids, I was fascinated by aliens, robots, and computers; I still am. So, I don’t think I ever “got into STEM”. I just kept learning about and, eventually, making, the things that had always interested me.
Doug: I have an education background and previously taught in public middle and high schools. I also worked at Georgetown University in the Center For New Design in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), where I participated in a university-wide program aimed at understanding, and correcting, the high attrition rate among minority students within the biology major. Here in Boston, I've served as both a mentor and member for the Boston Scholars program, which pairs students from underrepresented populations in the Cambridge/Boston area with an adult mentor who guides them through all four years of high school. The BSP has a 100% college placement rate of all students coming through the program, compared to less than half for their non-BSP peers. While not specifically STEM learning, I'm very interested in increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. My view is that the approach should focus on the bottom up, growing scholars from local feeder populations and identifying where we are losing those students along the way.
Your research on xenobots caused a lot of excitement. What are xenobots, and how do they differ from traditional robots?
Josh: Traditional robots are made from metal and plastic: xenobots are, for now, made only from frog cells. Also: most robots are designed by human engineers. The xenobots are robots that are designed by an AI.
Doug: Xenobots is a term used in the popular press very often, but I lean on the broader "biobot". Only recently have biological materials have been incorporated into the design of machines and robots, and I believe we were the first to use amphibian tissues (from the model system Xenopus laevis, hence the xeno-prefix). This can solve some problems facing traditional robotics--the material is biodegradable, programmable, and potentially self-regenerating.
What inspired you to use biological materials in xenobots?
Doug: Josh and Sam [Kriegman] had been working with virtual robots made out of programmable cubes, and had begun building those cubes out of silicon. I thought it could be possible to build their designs from living cells - and that traditional bioengineering programs might be looking at the wrong system. Xenopus is really the hero of the story - the model has been studied for ~80 years, tools exist to program collect and program their stem cells, all of their stem cells can survive in plain tap water, and it was known that some of their skin cells could self-propel in water due to micro-hairlike structures on their surface. They're also very robust, you can shape them, compress them, pull on them, and poke them and they tolerate the manipulations very well.
What are the potential real-world applications of xenobots, and what are the primary challenges that need to be addressed in order to realize these applications?
Josh: Like any new technology, it’s very hard to predict what its killer applications will be. For the xenobots, it’s like that, in the short term, they could be used for cleaning hazardous waste from ecologically sensitive environments. This is because xenobots are a green technology: they’re biocompatible and biodegradable.
Doug: I agree with Josh here, there's a wide range of environmental applications as they are biodegradable. They are also non-reproducing, which removes the risk of them 'getting loose' and contaminating an ecosystem like and invasive species.
For young people interested in pursuing a career in science and technology, what advice would you give ?
Josh: Science and technology is really hard, but really rewarding. Most days, nothing works: code crashes, experiments fail, or other scientists and engineers don’t like your ideas. But, every once in a while, you see something in the lab, like xenobots, that no human has ever seen before. For me, this last reason is why I love what I do.
Doug: People often think science and technology is somehow less expressive than arts related fields - I don't agree with this at all. If you have a curiosity and sense of wonder for the world around you, science can be incredibly fulfilling. I look in the microscope every week and see something no one has ever seen before, and solve problems that can make the world a better place.
Suppose many years from now, xenobots were to become as advanced as the nanobots we see in science fiction. What jobs would you hire them to do for you?
Josh: I don’t think xenobots of the future will be “them” and we will be “us”: instead, they’ll simply be part of our bodies. We’ll be able to, for example, send them out into the garden in the morning to grow a vegetable for dinner that tastes unlike any vegetable that’s ever existed, in the same way that we send texts out out in the morning and check responses on our phone later in the day.
Doug: Building on Josh's analogy, I see parallels here with domestication. We've domesticated animals, plants, and microbes for human purposes, and I think we're only scraping the surface of how we can use biology to solve human problems. Like a traditional robot, I hope we'll be able to send biobots out into the environment where they can record their experiences, do work, and report back to the human at a later time.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, and keep up the amazing research!
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