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How scientists grew the world’s first ‘synthetic’ embryo without eggs or sperm

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Researchers from University of Cambridge began their experiment in a lab with three primary embryonic stem cells. The cells then developed a beating heart and even a brain

How scientists grew the world's first 'synthetic' embryo without eggs or sperm

The three embryonic cells had mimicked the natural process of life by developing a brain, a heart and nutritional yolk sac. AP

The recipe to make a baby is simple: You need an egg, sperm, and a womb. But new research shows that neither of these is needed to procreate.

Using only a mixture of stem cells taken out from a mouse, scientists from the University of Cambridge were able to create the miracle of life – a synthetic embryo with a beating heart and even a brain.

Though the embryo lasted only for eight days, the research team claims that it could help doctors understand the earliest stages of organ development and what causes miscarriages.

Let’s take a closer look at how scientists made this possible.

How was the embryo made?

Researchers from the University of Cambridge began their experiment in a lab with three primary embryonic stem cells. They then grew them in favourable conditions so that the stem cells could develop.

Scientists were able to induce the stem cells to “talk” to each other by triggering the production of a certain type of gene.

Also Read: ‘Dil dhadakne do’: How scientists grew a piece of human heart in a laboratory

According to a report by New York Post, the three embryonic cells mimicked the natural process of life by developing a brain, a heart and a nutritional yolk sac.

Zernicka-Goetz, a professor in Mammalian Development and Stem Cell Biology in Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, and her team created the artificial embryo with the help of a technique developed by Jacob Hanna, a stem-cell biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Hanna has been working on the research for years.

“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 Zernika-Goetz, who is also the lead author of the study.

The embryo, however, could not survive beyond eight days. If it would have lasted a little longer, it could have grown into a live mouse.

But why did scientists grow an embryo in the lab?

Scientists believe that through this experiment it would be easier for doctors to identify why some pregnancies fail at an earlier stage.

Since they grow outside the uterus, a synthetic embryo would help doctors to observe them better. They are also easier to manoeuvre through genome-editing tools, according to a report by Nature.

This could in turn help them to uncover the role of different genes in birth defects or developmental disorders.

“The stem cell embryo model is important because it gives us accessibility to the developing structure at a stage that is normally hidden from us due to the implantation of the tiny embryo into the mother’s womb,” Zernicka-Goetz said.

Can humans be created out of artificial embryos?

Researchers have tried to coax human stem cells to become blastocysts – a cluster of cells made by a fertilised egg. They have also tried to mimic the stage where an embryo organises into distinct layers composed of different cell types, called gastrulation.

However, some scientists believe that this is too far-fetched. According to a Nature report, organ formation using human cells poses a significant challenge.

Questions are also being raised on whether synthetic structures should be considered embryos at all. The International Society for Stem Cell Research has advised against culturing human embryos beyond the 14th day.

During the first fertilisation in humans, three types of stem cells develop – one that will eventually form the tissues of the body and the other two that support the embryo’s development. According to a report by India Today, for a human embryo to develop, there needs to be a “dialogue” between the tissues that will eventually become the embryo.

The University of Cambridge said in a statement, “One of these extraembryonic stem cell types will become the placenta, which connects the foetus to the mother and provides oxygen and nutrients; and the second is the yolk sac, where the embryo grows and where it gets its nutrients from in early development.”

Other body parts grown in labs

Last month, scientists and researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of Montreal in Canada grew a piece of heart under lab conditions. The scientists reverse-engineered a millimetre-long vessel that beat just like a real biological vessel.

According to a report by LiveScience, a team of Australian scientists grew a mini kidney using three distinct types of cells in 2020.

Last year, a brain which had structural and genetical similarities to a five-week-old foetus was grown by the Ohio State University. A “game changer”, the brain also carried functioning neurons.

With inputs from agencies

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