Image: Weizmann Institute of Science/Reproduction
Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have developed synthetic embryos for the first time – that is, without the use of eggs, sperm or the need for fertilization. The full study was published in the scientific journal cell.
The structures were created from mouse stem cells. The lab-grown embryo was able to develop a beating heart, brain and intestinal tract, all apparently functioning organs.
The cells were placed in a kind of mechanical uterus, which had already been shown to be useful in generating natural mouse embryos. The synthetic models stayed in the device for just over a week — nearly half the rodent’s gestation time.
Some cells were pretreated with chemicals, which activated genetic programs to develop into a placenta or yolk sac, while others developed without intervention. Only 0.5% of the cells became embryos with distinct tissues and organs.
The synthetic embryos showed 95% similarity to natural mouse embryos. On the other hand, as was explained by the scientists, the cells did not generate real embryos, which means that none of them could become a living animal.
Now, scientists at the Weizmann Institute intend to investigate how stem cells evolve in each specific organ, which would help in the manipulation of tissues and structures for transplants.
“Instead of creating a different protocol for growing each type of cell – for example, kidney or liver cells – we could one day create a synthetic embryo-like model and isolate the cells we need. We will not need to dictate to emerging bodies how they should develop. The embryo itself does this better.” explained Jacob Hanna, one of the authors of the study, Tech Explorer.