Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Applications and ethics of computer-designed organisms

Computer-designed organisms — biobots, such as xenobots — are at the intersection of synthetic developmental biology and machine learning. This technology, which enables the evolution of real, living forms to take place in a virtual world, is part of an emerging new research field with applications in biomedicine and engineering, and raises profound philosophical questions.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    Levin, M. & Martinez Arias, A. Reverse-engineering growth and form in Heidelberg. Development 146, dev177261 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Kamm, R. D. et al. Perspective: the promise of multi-cellular engineered living systems. Apl. Bioeng. 2, 040901 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Chan, V. et al. Development of miniaturized walking biological machines. Sci. Rep. 2, 857 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Park, S. J. et al. Phototactic guidance of a tissue-engineered soft-robotic ray. Science 353, 158–162 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Nawroth, J. C. et al. A tissue-engineered jellyfish with biomimetic propulsion. Nat. Biotechnol. 30, 792–797 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Kriegman, S., Blackiston, D., Levin, M. & Bongard, J. A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 117, 1853–1859 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Hyun, I., Scharf-Deering, J. C. & Lunshof, J. E. Ethical issues related to brain organoid research. Brain Res. 1732, 146653 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Cook, N. D., Carvalho, G. B. & Damasio, A. From membrane excitability to metazoan psychology. Trends Neurosci. 37, 698–705 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Baluska, F. & Reber, A. Sentience and consciousness in single cells: how the first minds emerged in unicellular species. BioEssays 41, e1800229 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Levin, M. The computational boundary of a “self”: developmental bioelectricity drives multicellularity and scale-free cognition. Front. Psychol. 10, 2688 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

M.L. gratefully acknowledges support (via grant TWCF0315) from the Templeton World Charity Foundation and from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under Cooperative Agreement Number HR0011-18-2-0022. J.E.L. is supported by a grant from the Greenwall Foundation.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. Levin.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Levin, M., Bongard, J. & Lunshof, J.E. Applications and ethics of computer-designed organisms. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 21, 655–656 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41580-020-00284-z

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing