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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $4.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Levin, M. & Martinez Arias, A. Reverse-engineering growth and form in Heidelberg. Development 146, dev177261 (2019).
Kamm, R. D. et al. Perspective: the promise of multi-cellular engineered living systems. Apl. Bioeng. 2, 040901 (2018).
Chan, V. et al. Development of miniaturized walking biological machines. Sci. Rep. 2, 857 (2012).
Park, S. J. et al. Phototactic guidance of a tissue-engineered soft-robotic ray. Science 353, 158–162 (2016).
Nawroth, J. C. et al. A tissue-engineered jellyfish with biomimetic propulsion. Nat. Biotechnol. 30, 792–797 (2012).
Kriegman, S., Blackiston, D., Levin, M. & Bongard, J. A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 117, 1853–1859 (2020).
Hyun, I., Scharf-Deering, J. C. & Lunshof, J. E. Ethical issues related to brain organoid research. Brain Res. 1732, 146653 (2020).
Cook, N. D., Carvalho, G. B. & Damasio, A. From membrane excitability to metazoan psychology. Trends Neurosci. 37, 698–705 (2014).
Baluska, F. & Reber, A. Sentience and consciousness in single cells: how the first minds emerged in unicellular species. BioEssays 41, e1800229 (2019).
Levin, M. The computational boundary of a “self”: developmental bioelectricity drives multicellularity and scale-free cognition. Front. Psychol. 10, 2688 (2019).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
About this article
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
Nature Reviews Materials (2021)
Stem Cell Reports (2021)
Living Things Are Not (20th Century) Machines: Updating Mechanism Metaphors in Light of the Modern Science of Machine Behavior
Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (2021)
Biology & Philosophy (2021)