Navigating science’s moral future

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, researchers announced they had created the first living robot. These so-called “xenobots” are programmable organisms created from the stem cells of African clawed frog embryos — or Xenopus laevis. Just two years later, researchers announced that xenobots were spontaneously reproducing. This shocking and concerning news was not widely covered except by scientific publications and a social media post by Joe Rogan. Rather than solely leaving important moral and ethical implications such as this one to scientists, we need to bring them into the public discourse. Xenobots are tiny living organisms that can walk, swim, survive for weeks, and self-heal even when cut in half. The cells were cultured in saltwater and independently clumped together and developed cilia, which allow them to move by propelling themselves. They use their movement and work together to make random piles of particles in their environment. While xenobots have no brain or digestive system, studies from Tufts University, Harvard University, and the University of Vermont show that these living organisms can be programmed like robots. First, to corral other cells, but other possible applications exist as well. Researchers hope that one day the xenobots will be useful for finding cancer cells in the human body, delivering medicine to specific parts of the body, eliminating radioactive waste, or collecting microplastics in the ocean.