With mere weeks left, 2021 has now managed to sneak in one more headlines-spurring feat: the unveiling of spontaneously self-replicating Xenobots.

As you may or may not already be aware, Xenobots—invented last year—are computer-designed lifeforms built from frog cells. The Xenobots were said at the time to be capable of moving in the direction of targets and healing themselves, among other tasks. But on Monday, scientists provided an update that’s receiving global attention.

In short, scientists have found what’s described as “an entirely new form of biological reproduction.” This new form was then utilized in the creation of versions of the living robots that can self-replicate.

“These are frog cells replicating in a way that is very different from how frogs do it,” Sam Kriegman—the lead author on the new study from University of Vermont, Tufts University, and Harvard—said in a press release. “No animal or plant known to science replicates in this way.”

Of course, news of this variety is often met with a sense of trepidation, but this team of scientists is approaching the findings with a cautious spirit of optimism. For example, the involvement of artificial intelligence in the process (namely AI developing Xenobot designs to increase replications) could be a sign of similar methods’ viability in the ongoing pandemic battle.

As for any debate over using the word “robot” in this context, researchers previously acknowledged these lifeforms are not robots in the traditionally understood sense of the word. UVM robotics expert Joshua Bongard, for example, touted the living robot model as also being a “programmable organism” back in January 2020. In a more recent CNN discussion, Bonbard explained this further by noting that what’s most important in such a distinction isn’t the material makeup of the being but instead “what it does.”

For a deeper look into the latest on Xenobots, check out what researchers published this week in the long-running (and peer-reviewed) journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.