New creatures, called “xenobots” were designed on a supercomputer at the University of Vermont by professor of computer science Joshua Bongard and his graduate student Sam Kriegman.

Then biologists at Tufts University took the UVM designs and assembled them out of frog cells. The result was “a new class of artifact,” says Bongard, “a living, programmable organism"—that led to a scientific study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 13.

And the other result was an avalanche of global media attention. Many hundreds (maybe thousands) of stories were published—from Boston to Beijing.

One of the biggest stories, “Meet the xenobot: world's first living, self-healing robots created from frog stem cells,” was published out of CNN’s international desk in Hong Kong and picked by TV stations around the country. This led to a broadcast appearance by UVM’s Josh Bongard as a guest on Fredricka Whitfield’s Sunday interview show. After the interview, CNN featured a photo of a xenobot on its Instagram feed. It has 95,551 likes.

The BBC World Service also served up their expert interview work in a conversation with Bongard about computer-designed organisms.

Science Friday, the widely syndicated program aired by radio stations across the country, invited Josh Bongard to be their guest in a wide-ranging conversation with host Ira Flatow. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced an inviting nine-minute-long radio conversation with Bongard for their flagship science program, Quirks & Quarks.

Bloomberg News produced its own "QuickTake" video about the research and also tweeted the video. Sky News produced an online story and also interviewed Bongard for global television broadcast on their program, "The Sarah-Jane Mee Show."

Many of the nation’s leading science magazines covered this research including Scientific American, The Scientist, Cosmos, Popular Mechanics, IEEE Spectrum and a thoughtful story, “Meet Xenobot, an Eerie New Kind of Programmable Organism,” in Wired.

Other influential publications took up the xenobot story too, including SmithsonianThe EconomistThe Week, Esquire, and Forbes.

Newspapers around the world reported the news, from The Boston Globe to the San Francisco Chronicle to the The Times (of London) and other British tabloids, including The TelegraphThe Independent, and The Guardian which republished a UVM-produced video.

Other international coverage included the Irish Independent, Sydney Morning HeraldNew Zealand HeraldL’Express (France), Der Tagesspiegel (Germany), and El Mundo (Spain). 

The MIT Technology Review, reported a story, “These “xenobots” are living machines designed by an evolutionary algorithm,” and another one for their Chinese edition. And Inverse may get the best-but-most-misleading-headline award with its story, “Scientists develop ‘walking caviar’ to make the first-ever living machine.” Even the inimitable website IFLScience!, with its fifty million readers, covered the xenobot work.

Local and Vermont media also covered the work, including an interview with WCAX television. 


Joshua E. Brown