Apr 20, 2019 02:17 PM EDT
A new biomaterial built in a Cornell University bioengineering lab uses synthetic DNA to continuously and autonomously organize, assemble, and restructure itself in a process so similar to how biological cells and tissues grow that the researchers are calling "artificial metabolism". However, scientists are not ready to admit that they have created lifelike machinery. Scientists have done everything but outright claim that their metabolizing biomaterial is alive, but research has listed the characteristics of life that the material exhibits-self-assembly, organization, and metabolism.
These human-engineered organic machines are capable of locomotion, consuming resources for energy, growing and decaying, and evolving. Eventually they die. As that may sound very similar to being alive, Dan Luo, professor of biological and environmental engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell, who worked on the research, says otherwise. "We are introducing a brand-new, lifelike material concept powered by its very own artificial metabolism. We are not making something that's alive, but we are creating materials that are much more lifelike than have ever been seen before."
So scientists aren't ready to claim that they have created life, but just how lifelike is this material? According to the research they're on par with biologically complex organisms such as mold: "Here, we report a bottom-up construction of dynamic biomaterials powered by artificial metabolism, representing a combination of irreversible biosynthesis and dissipative assembly processes. An emergent locomotion behavior resembling a slime mold was programmed with this material by using an abstract design model similar to mechanical systems. An emergent racing behavior of two locomotive bodies was achieved by expanding the program. Other applications, including pathogen detection and hybrid nanomaterials, illustrated further potential use of this material. Dynamic biomaterials powered by artificial metabolism could provide a previously unexplored route to realize "artificial" biological systems with regenerating and self-sustaining characteristics."
The Cornell team essentially grew their own robots using a DNA-based bio-material, observed them metabolizing resources for energy, watched as they decayed and grew, and then programmed them to race against each other. We would have made them compete in a karaoke competition, but Cornell's application is also impressive. As unbelievable as it sounds, the team is actually just getting started. Lead author on the team's paper, Shogo Hamada, said that "ultimately, the system may lead to lifelike self-reproducing machines."
This work is still in its infancy, but the implications of organically grown, self-reproducing machines are incredible. And the debate over whether robots can be "alive" will likely have an entire new chapter to discuss soon.
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