Vignette 3: Biobots learn and evolve!

Scientists have developed a method to print millimeter-to-centimeter scale biological microrobots or ‘bio-bots.’ These ‘creatures’ consist of soft-polymer materials and living cells. They can be made in scales of 1 biobot per minute and thousands can be made in a few hours. They are composed of three types of cells: ‘sensing cells’ that can sense the presence of neuro-toxins in water supplies; ‘actuator cells’ that enable them to move and walk towards the source of the toxins; and ‘factory cells’ that can release antidotes to neutralize the harmful effect of the toxins.  These biobot creatures can survive for months at a time and can be very beneficial for the society.

After doing many experiments, the researchers found that typically most of the biobots would sense the toxin and release the antidote, but would also get inactivated if the toxin concentration was higher than a certain value. However, they realized that a small population of the biobots was responding differently. This population would move towards the source of the toxin at a slower rate and hence not only release the antidote but also would not get inactivated after exposure. This population of the biobots when isolated and exposed to the situation again would not move to the source toxin as quickly. Rather, they would tend to begin to move in the other direction so that they did not get inactivated after a high toxin exposure dose.

Questions:

  1. Are the biobots learning and evolving and, if so, what aspects of the behavior would fall in the category of learning and evolving?
  2. What are the implications of the biobots changing their behavior from the initial specifications that they were designed to do?
  3. Should the researchers publish or patent the designs and ideas?
  4. What are the lessons learned?
  5. Any comments: