Emerging Technologies 2019 – Artificial Embryos

Scientists have started designing embryos from stem cells

What? Without having to resort to ovules or sperm, researchers have created embryo-like structures from stem cells, an advance that offers a new way to create life.

Why? Artificial embryos will facilitate the study of the mysterious beginnings of human life, something that is not exempt from strong bioethical debates.

Who? The University of Cambridge, University of Michigan, Rockefeller University

In an advance that redefines the mechanisms to create life, embryologists at the University of Cambridge (UK) have developed realistic-looking mouse embryos from stem cells. Without ovum or sperm; only with cells extracted from another embryo (see Synthetic Gametes: the reproduction that would allow having children without taking into account the age or sex ).

The researchers carefully placed the cells on a three-dimensional scaffold and observed, fascinated, how they began to communicate and line up to give rise to the characteristic bullet shape of a multi-day-old mouse embryo.

In an interview, the head of the team, Magdelena Zernicka-Goetz, said: “We know that stem cells are magical because of their powerful potential for what they can do, but we did not know that they could authorize themselves in such a beautiful and perfect way .”

Zernicka-Goetz explains that “synthetic” embryos probably could not have turned into mice. However, they are a clue that we could soon have mammals born without the need to have an egg.

This is not the goal of Zernicka-Goetz. She wants to study how the cells of an early embryo begin to assume their specialized functions. And she explains that the next step will be to create an artificial embryo from human stem cells; work that is being carried out at the University of Michigan and Rockefeller University (both in the US).

Synthetic human embryos would be a blessing for scientists since they would allow them to unravel the events that take place at the beginning of development. And since such embryos start with easily manipulated stem cells, laboratories will have many tools, such as genetic editing, to investigate them as they grow.

However, artificial embryos raise ethical questions. What if they can not be distinguished from a real embryo? How long can they grow in the laboratory before they feel pain? Bioethics experts say we need to address these questions before science goes further.

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