Scientists Throw Open the Floodgates with Synthetic Embryo


Researchers in the United Kingdom have created “synthetic” embryos from mouse stem cells. The embryos have formed brains and beating hearts along with the foundations of other bodily organs.

With the initial stages of success for this synthetic embryo, many see this as a possible new avenue for recreating the first stages of life using stem cells instead of eggs or sperm, the University of Cambridge reported.

The researchers published their findings Thursday in the journal Nature.

Stem cells are considered the body’s “master cell” and can develop into just about any type of cell in the body.

The team at Cambridge, led by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, a professor in mammalian development and stem cell biology, mimicked the natural process of embryo creation by guiding three types of stem cells that are found in the early developmental stages in mammals.

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The researchers were able to get the stem cells to interact with each other and the process of embryo development was able to move forward.

“By inducing the expression of a particular set of genes and establishing a unique environment for their interactions, the researchers were able to get the stem cells to ‘talk’ to each other,” the university reported.

The team of researchers said these developments in creating an embryo without eggs and sperm could help create a better understanding of why some human embryos fail in development while others go on to develop into a normal, healthy pregnancy, the university reported.

Additionally, the researchers hope that their results could help pioneer methods for repairing human embryos and even develop synthetic human organs for transplant.

Should scientists continue down this road?

This research and the new results have been the work of more than a decade as researchers have created more and more complex embryo-like structures until they got these results of a brain and beating heart.

“Our mouse embryo model not only develops a brain, but also a beating heart, all the components that go on to make up the body,” Zernicka-Goetz said, according to the university.

“It’s just unbelievable that we’ve got this far. This has been the dream of our community for years, and a major focus of our work for a decade, and finally we’ve done it,” she said.

“This period of human life is so mysterious, so to be able to see how it happens in a dish – to have access to these individual stem cells, to understand why so many pregnancies fail and how we might be able to prevent that from happening – is quite special,” said Zernicka-Goetz.

“We looked at the dialogue that has to happen between the different types of stem cell at that time – we’ve shown how it occurs and how it can go wrong,” she added.

Mad Science

And the University of Cambridge researchers are not alone in this embryonic development. In fact, according to Nature, they built on the progress of a team at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. The Israeli team published a paper on its progress on Aug. 1 in the journal Cell.

This research and breakthrough in understanding a part of embryonic development pulls back a bit of the veil on the creation of life.

While it may lead to helpful technology for embryonic repair and development, there are always dangers that accompany any kind of science that pushes humans further into a “god” role in science and human life.

The synthetic embryo researchers at Cambridge created was made from the cells of a mouse but geared toward the purpose of aiding in human development further down the road.

The experiments will allow researchers to manipulate genes which could lend a greater understanding of how genetics and beings are formed.

“Our model does not have to implant to develop, so it remains completely visible to us, allowing us to see the embryo’s progression through that developmental stage. This accessibility allows us to manipulate genes to understand their developmental roles in a model experimental system,” Zernicka-Goetz said, according to the university.

Presumably, this means that further down the road, researchers could learn to manipulate genes in human development. This could lead to the elimination of diseases and genetic conditions and ailments.

While that seems like a positive advance in science, there is still so little known that dangers abound. Scientists may be able to play God and eliminate some genetic issues, but there is no telling what other complications such manipulation could bring.

Since humans are not gods, no matter how advanced science and research are, scientists do not have the omniscience to predict what the consequences or complications of such developments can bring, especially once applied to the human body.

Of course, there is a natural risk to all science and biotechnological development. That doesn’t mean researchers should stop trying to advance science and medicine.

But research directly tied to the creation of life itself is a higher-stakes game and questions about the ethics behind it should not be lightly dismissed in the name of scientific advancement.

By creating a “synthetic embryo,” even the “embryo” of a mouse, the University of Cambridge scientists have opened the floodgates.

We can only hope, and pray, the rest of us don’t drown in the consequences.

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