You might have heard news that scientists have managed to grow artificial embryos in a lab. But what exactly does that mean, and have they really created life?
The study was published in Nature, and is a pretty big deal as scientists have never made an embryo from scratch like this before.
Here’s everything you need to know about the cutting-edge research.
What exactly have they done?
— Cambridge University (@Cambridge_Uni) March 2, 2017
The scientists from Cambridge created an artificial mouse embryo outside of an actual mouse, using a blob of gel as a sort of scaffold to hold all the stem cells together.
They used two types of genetically modified stem cells (embryonic and extra-embryonic trophoblast if you’re interested) to make the embryo.
The stem cells communicated with each other and began to differentiate into mouse and placenta parts. After seven days they looked just a like a regular cluster of cells would after fertilisation inside the womb.
The researchers didn’t use an egg or a sperm in the process, which has never been done before.
Have they really created life?
In a sense. Because it was done outside the mouse body, without a sperm or egg, there is a sense that it’s been “created”, but it’s not really akin to life as it can’t “live” on much further into the development process.
But they wouldn’t have been able to grow a fully fledged mouse in a test tube with this technique anyway.
The embryos wouldn’t have survived much longer than they did because they were getting to the stage where they’d need a placenta-supplied flow of oxygen and food.
The embryos would also require a third type of stem cell to create the yolk sack that supplies these nutrients.
Why are they doing it?
Although this all sounds like the beginning of a Black Mirror scenario where mad scientists make humans from scratch, that’s not at all their aim.
Even this experiment in mice has given scientists more of an insight into how the human embryo develops. Two thirds of human pregnancies miscarry during this time and further work could shed light on why.
Plus, there’s a practical use. Scientists are always low on test human embryos which are currently donated as spares from IVF. If scientists could grow their own, it would really help with studies on early development.
Currently, they can only be used in research for fourteen days, but this breakthrough could mean scientists were able to experiment on artificial embryos for longer.