A new interdisciplinary research project called BABots (Biological Animal roBots) will start in October 2023. The project covers:
Neuro and Synthetic Biology
To design and build biosafe transgenic C. elegans worms which will perform novel specified behaviours.
Swarm Intelligence and Population Dynamics
To enable the linking of microscopic individual behaviour to macroscopic collective behaviour
Ethics in Technology
To provide a firm, effective, ethical, and regulatory framework around the development of the BABot technology
Vertical Farming and Agrotechnology
To provide a realistic context towards a first BABot implementation in a controlled/contained farming environment (zero risk).
BABots are small animals whose nervous system is genetically reconfigured to produce novel behaviours. These creatures will serve as Biological Animal roBots (BABots) intended to ultimately execute diverse tasks, such as protecting crops from pathogen invasion, clearing contaminants from soil or water, or entering the body to perform certain clinical procedures.
We are the BABot consortium, funded by the European Innovation Council (EIC), and consisting of an international team of experts in neurobiology, synthetic biology, collective behaviour, robotics, and ethics, as well as a state-of-the-art agrotech company. Our goal is to develop and promote BABot technology, and demonstrate its utility and safety under a stringent ethical and regulatory framework.
We will implement the first BABot system in C. elegans, a 1 mm long nematode worm. Worm BABots will be programmed to act as a collective that will detect, locate and attack invading pathogens in a contained agricultural setting.
The BABot project promises a radically new approach to bio-robotics, and will potentially have a dramatic impact on precision agriculture, bioindustry and medicine.
The BABot project launches 1 October, 2023.
BABots are transgenic worms (C. elegans) which are reconfigured to perform biological human-designed tasks in an active an autonomous way. We use their scale and their ability to (inter)act within complex biological environments.
BABots will provide a biological 100% environmentally-compatible technology for accomplishing tasks that are currently out of reach for conventional electromechanical or soft robots, which lack the high dexterity of BABots, refined through millions of years of natural evolution in combination with state-of-the-art biologically-based human design.
BABots will have multiple uses that can benefit society. We envision, for example, farmer insects producing and distributing fertilizer and protecting crops by fighting off pests; medicinal nematodes entering the body, performing specific medical procedures and then leaving; sanitation cockroaches clearing up the sewage system, but staying out of the house. Although some of these tasks may be performed also by chemical means or using conventional robots, BABots will provide a level of agility, precision, effectiveness and bio-compatibility unattainable by any other technology.
No. The organisms studied in the project are C. elegans and even the most cautious sources agree that C. elegans are not sentient. They are not capable of feeling pain and cannot be hurt. They will, of course, be treated with the respect that is due to all life forms, and they will operate in environments that are very natural to them.
We envision BABots operating in the open environment, but not within the timeframe of the current project. They could contribute to restoring the prominence of living biomass on earth, which has already been surpassed by human-made mass (e.g., concrete, plastic, electronics, etc.). Importantly, BABots will not outcompete natural wild strains, since their modified behaviours would incur substantial energetic costs and expose them to dangers, considerably reducing their fitness. Nevertheless, in the future, the release of BABots into the environment would only be considered after the rigorous development of a robust biocontainment strategy and a rigorous regulatory framework.
A major effort of the project is the development of a multi-layered zero risk biocontainment strategy, implemented in the BABots. This includes stringent measures such as sterility kill switches, and a complete reliance of BABots on certain non-natural substances for their existence. In any case, all initial work on BABots is confined to the laboratory under strict safety regulations,and subsequent testing in an agricultural setting is exclusively performed within contained and isolated receptacles.
Determining this is an integral part of the project. Current regulations may well be enough with the safety measures that we use, but if something else is needed, we will act to incorporate and amend the existing framework, accordingly.
A key component of the BABot project consists of identifying the specific ethical issues pertaining to this project and, more generally, to any small swarming type of animal robot, and to conduct a full analysis on these issues. To this end, we are implementing an up-to-date literature review and an in-depth conceptual analysis. The framework covers the ethicality of BABots per se, BABots in research and application stages, their social acceptability, sustainability, and justice issues.
At the heart of the BABot project lies the groundbreaking notion of synthetically tailoring the nervous system of a small animal to produce novel human-designed behaviours. We have previously established a technique for genetically inserting new electrical synaptic connections into C. elegans neural circuits. This technique has proven to be very effective in modifying natural C. elegans behaviours. The BABot project will take this approach a huge step further, implementing completely new synthetic behavioural building blocks.
Current robot technology is playing an important and growing role in multiple domains, handling tasks that are beyond our physical capacities, or that are too dangerous, too labor-intensive, require too great a force or are too minuscule for us to handle. In particular, the miniaturization of hardware poses severe constraints on the perceptual, cognitive and actuation capacities of conventional electromechanical robots. BABots will surpass current robotic paradigms in three essential ways:
- BABots will exhibit superior sensitivity, agility and compatibility within diverse biological environments at multiple scales, owing to their extensively evolved biological sensors and actuators;
- BABots will show a high degree of flexibility and sophistication, due to their programming at the level of biological neural networks;
- BABots will be easy to manufacture, power, recycle and eventually degrade, since they can self-replicate, and are entirely organic.
Genetic modification of animals is common practice in basic research and is increasingly employed in various applications. For example, worms such as C. elegans have been genetically reprogrammed to act as biosensors of toxic compounds or disease-related metabolites, fluorescent fish have been designed to fluoresce when encountering pollutants, and silkworms have been engineered to produce spider silk. The essential novelty that separates BABots from mere transgenic animals is that they will be active, and autonomous, and will produce desired complex responses to particular situations. Instead of just reporting the presence of a target substance, they will act to eliminate it in an effective and purposeful manner.
Biomimetic robots are at the frontier of current robotics. These robots are composed of soft materials or even real biological tissue, providing distinct properties observed in natural systems. While biomimetics equips electromechanical robots with enhanced agility, flexibility and the ability to blend into the environment, these robots are still based on electromechanical principles of design and operation, and require individual fabrication. Most recently, Xenobots have been introduced, which are minute organisms that are machine- or self-assembled from frog stem cells. The BABot project will push this field considerably further, introducing individual reproducible multicellular robots that are completely biological, programmable at the neural level and capable of complex behaviours both as single units and as a heterogeneous collective.
Absolutely. Synthetic Biology is a rapidly growing field that focuses on the engineering of novel devices that are entirely biological. For example, synthetic bacteria are being designed that reside in the human body and monitor and treat diseases by producing and secreting medication on demand, or that spread in the soil and detect and clear out pollutants, mines and explosives. The main focus of synthetic biology has been so far single-celled organisms or multi-cellular plants. BABots will present a completely new, animal form of synthetic biology, targeting both neural and gene circuits, and thus generating synthetic organisms that operate at greater speeds, over larger areas, exhibiting more complex behaviours.
Although C. elegans worms naturally display some degree of swarming, this depends on specific conditions, such as high oxygen levels or food depletion. Neural circuit engineering will enable us to generate continuously and robustly swarming worms, amenable to desired tuning and control. The BABot project will develop a novel interdisciplinary conceptual and methodological framework that will lay the scientific grounds for understanding how desired and controllable collective actions can best emerge from individual worm behaviours.
Vertical farming, as developed by ZERO Farms, is a controlled and contained farming environment, including closed cycle, soil-less plant cultivation systems. This safe and contained environment helps us to assess BABot interactions with the ZERO Labs machinery elements (pumps, probes, piping) and with target crop cultivations (e.g., lettuce and strawberry plants) under precisely defined environmental conditions. Notably, certain wild nematodes species are already commercially applied in gardening, but lack the specificity, effectiveness and controllability that BABots will offer, such as clever protection from diverse plant pathogens, not typically susceptible to nematode attacks, or the distribution of beneficial plant bacteria to specific targets (e.g., roots). In addition, BABots will provide also a biological alternative to chemical or silicon-based technologies, being 100% environmentally compatible, while performing tasks that are currently out of reach for conventional electromechanical or soft robots, lacking the high dexterity of BABots refined through millions of years of natural evolution.
Our goal is to share BABot development with the general public in a transparent and cooperative way. It is important for us to raise public awareness to the opportunities as well as the calculated risks entailed by BABots, and to receive ongoing constructive feedback. To this end, multiple demonstration and educational activities will be conducted. We will organize public events such as science festivals and public demonstrations using, for example, robots to explain with a physical system the principle underlying BABot technology. Importantly, we will conduct open constructive discussions and brainstorming events on the ethical and social acceptability issues related to the project's goals. Finally, our dedicated interactive website presents progress updates and demonstrators in both specialist and popular language.