By: Adam Zhang
Scientists in Israel have created synthetic mouse embryos with no sperm or egg! They have been developing in an artificial womb for eight days. The embryo has a beating heart, a complex brain, and functional organs. If successful, this project could open a new door for curing diseases that attack certain organs.
Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science put artificial mouse embryos in a synthetic womb for eight days. They stopped developing after, which means that the mouse embryos develop three times faster than natural embryos.
Scientists made these synthetic embryos using embryonic stem cells. The goal wasn’t to create furry little friends, but to study how organs form and how early embryonic development happens. Scientists will continue researching on synthetic mouse embryos until human organs can be created.
Of course, similar to a problem another branch of science (artificial intelligence) is facing, there have been questions on how ethical it is to test on these synthetic mice. Scientists have created almost identical copies of ‘organic’ mice, so should researchers treat their creations ethically as if they are real embryos?
“This is an important landmark in our understanding of how embryos build themselves,” said Alfonso Martinez Arias, a biologist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona in an email.
Published just over a week ago in the journal Cell, the content of the research is not about growing synthetic mice; it is about creating synthetic embryos from just embryonic stem cells. The process, however, was risky and prone to error.
The synthetic embryos were, of course, not completely identical to natural embryos. Jacob Hanna, a stem cell scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who also led the project, said that the test did not result in pregnancies in real mice.
“It’s an interesting next step, not shocking, but one that makes more plausible in the long run a proposition with broad implications: the possibility of turning any mouse cell into a living mouse,” bioethicist Henry T. Greely said.
Last year, the International Society for Stem Cell Researched removed a long-standing “14-day rule”. The rule said that scientists could only grow natural embryos for 14 days in a lab. The removal of this law allowed longer studies of embryos. Human embryos, however, are banned from implantation into a uterus.
Like most other studies like this, successful reports could result in a method of growing artificial organs for humans.
“The mouse is a starting point for thinking about how one wants to approach this in humans,” explains Alex Meissner, a biologist at Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics. “It’s not necessary to be alarmed or raise any panic, but as we learn, it’s important to have in parallel the discussion: How far do we want to take it?”