Overview:

The latest published paper on synthetic embryo research does in fact mark a significant shift in our scientific capacity to "create life". Are we ready for it?

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On Monday, Cell published the results of embryonic experiments carried out by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, which has been studying the potential of stem cells to give rise to entire embryonic structures. Its latest findings reveal the capacity to culture mouse stem cells to the state of an 8.5-day-old embryo—without the use of sperm, an ovum, or a uterus.

Grown entirely in a bioreactor, using stem cells cultured in a Petri dish, these mouse embryos developed at each stage exactly as in nature, and achieved blood circulation (the “beating heart” phase) through a forming vascular system on day eight. A neural tube, intestinal tract, and brain system were also in evidence by this point.

Advances in synthetic embryo research have often made headlines in recent years, as various labs further our capacity to develop structures in artificial environments. Just last December, Nature reported the creation of human embryo models equivalent to a blastocyst, a four-to-seven-day structure readying for uterine implantation, entirely from stem cells. Earlier researchers cautioned against the use of the term “embryo” for such models, though, because these (organ-mimicking) organoids and (fertilized-egg-mimicking) blastoids did not have the same gestational trajectory.

This latest development in mammalian embryonic research, however, strongly suggests the ability to grow entire, self-sustaining organisms. Historically, embryo modeling and related stem cell research have been used to better understand disease-inducing mutations, advance transplantable tissues research, reduce miscarriages, and improve our overall understanding of developmental pathways.

In conjunction with a major decision last year, to relax the international 14-day limit on the cultivation of human embryos for research, the bio-ethical quandaries raised by scientific developments such as these call for immediate consideration.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.