Scientists have created the miracle of life — no male or female necessary.
Using only a mixture of stem cells, University of Cambridge researchers were able to generate a live, “synthetic” mouse embryo — complete with a brain and beating heart in what they deemed a “world first.”
It could have gone on to develop a spine, intestines and muscle — and, eventually, become a live mouse.
Scientists’ observations from the experiment could provide life-saving insight into the mysteries of human development. For example, the research could help doctors better understand the causes of a miscarriage during the early stages of pregnancy or could inform the study of lab-grown organs that could be used in organ donation and might help address the current donor shortage.
“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,” said lead author and professor, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz in a statement. “It’s just unbelievable that we’ve got this far. This has been the dream of our community for years, and major focus of our work for a decade and finally we’ve done it.”
The Cambridge lab began their experiment with three primary embryonic stem cells, throwing them into a favorable environment and nudging them toward each other, just close enough so they could “communicate” and encourage the formation of life.
Any and all cells — liver cells, skin cells, blood cells, etc. — begin as stem cells but soon differentiate in the embryo in order to build a complete living organism. That’s why they’re often referred to as “master” cells. As the embryo develops, some stem cells will manifest into organs, bones and other tissues, while others multiply into “daughter” cells that the body stores for later — like, say, when we get an injury and need to generate new tissue for healing.
Those three embryonic stem cells had shown the fundamentals of successful development by starting to form a brain, heart and nutritional yolk sac but didn’t survive beyond 8½ days — just under half as long as it takes for a mouse to be born, about 20 days.
Scientists are a long way off from creating a living, breathing body entirely inside the lab, and without input from a mother and father, but that’s not what this study is about. What Cambridge researchers observed in just over a week could be invaluable, they said, considering the estimated 20% to 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, often before the mother has any idea she’s pregnant.
“It’s an absolutely fantastically complex stage of development, and [our study] has extremely relevant meaning for the rest of our life,” said Zernicka-Goetz during a press conference, according to Gizmodo.
If the Cambridge team’s methods later prove successful with human tissue, they hope to apply them to creating lab organs for transplantation.
“What makes our work so exciting is that the knowledge coming out of it could be used to grow correct synthetic human organs to save lives that are currently lost,” said Zernicka-Goetz. “It should also be possible to affect and heal adult organs by using the knowledge we have on how they are made.”
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