The field of biochemistry has been booming for my entire life. This has created the illusion that living beings are chemical machines. It’s true, of course, that we can understand a great deal about life based on chemistry. But some very basic life functions can’t be explained in chemical terms.
How does an embryo develop the shape of a body? The lab of Michael Levin has been creatively posing this question for 20 years. In his latest research, he is letting foetal cells self-organize into Xenobots that have autonomous behaviors. They move, they seek warmth, they form patters in cooperation with other xenobots. They have purposeful behaviors, thought to require nervous systems.
The xenobots are turning some conventional views in developmental biology upside down. They suggest that the frog genome doesn’t uniquely instruct cells about how to proliferate, differentiate and arrange themselves into a frog body. Rather, that’s just one possible outcome of the process that the genomic programming permits.—read more from Quanta Magazine
The results seem to imply that individual cells have a kind of decision-making capacity that creates a palette of possible bodies they could build — constrained and guided by the genome but not defined by it. Rules operating above the level of genes appear to specify biological form, and the way we see them embodied in xenobots can tell us something about how they operate.