Artificial Embryo: How Researchers Engineer Life In A Petri Dish


Science proves that life begins not only in nature, but also in the lab. A world premiere has recently taken the field of embryology by storm, with the creation of the first successful artificial embryo from mice stem cells.

The revolutionary exploits of researchers from Cambridge University offer unprecedented insight into the way different types of cells communicate with each other to produce a fully-formed embryo. This scientific breakthrough separates their accomplishments from previous studies, which have only resulted in partial embryonic construction.

The world's first artificial embryo faithfully mimics the structure of a natural mouse embryo, as well as its ability to develop and assemble itself.

Although additional research is required to propel the embryo into the next stage - that of a live fetus - this study offers a more comprehensive understanding of early embryonic development and could help improve fertility treatments.

Featured on March 2 in the journal Science, the study might also lead to great progress in regenerative medicine.

Life In The Making - How Embryos Are Formed In The Lab

All embryos start from a fertilized egg, which, after completing its division process, leads to the formation of a blastocyst. Within this elementary biological structure, three types of cells begin to cluster and develop: the embryonic stem cells (which eventually become the body of the embryo), and two extra-embryonic types of cells - the trophoblast stem cells (which develop into the placenta) and the endoderm stem cells (which go on to form the yolk sac).

Unlike in previous attempts, researchers led by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, a professor in Cambridge's Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, managed to artificially create not only the embryonic body, but the trophoblast stem cells as well.

It is to these cells that Zernicka-Goetz attributes her success, as she believes the trophoblast stem cells communicate with the embryonic stem cells and help them evolve.

"We knew that interactions between the different types of stem cells are important for development, but the striking thing that our new work illustrates is that this is a real partnership - these cells truly guide each other," Zernicka-Goetz tells BBC.

As she explains in for CNN, the two types of stem cells begin to "talk to each other" and "respond by turning on particular developmental gene circuits or by physically changing shape to accomplish some architectural remodeling."

Through Zernicka-Goetz's efforts, this process - essential to the formation of natural embryos - has now for the first time been successfully replicated in a petri dish.

Important Headway In Reproductive Medicine

Albeit still in rudimentary form - since it can't further develop into a healthy fetus because of the absence of endoderm cells - the newly constructed artificial embryo leads scientists closer to understanding how embryogenesis works. The study's conclusions shed new light into the role played by extra-embryonic stem cells in the formation of an embryo.

In the future, these cells could be molecularly manipulated to better grasp their interactions and the early embryonic development stages, hypothesizes Dr. Christos Coutifaris, president-elect of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Zernicka-Goetz's research could also lead to important advancements in the study of embryonic stem cell therapy applications. The artificial embryonic model could facilitate investigations into how genetic manipulations and environmental toxins affect embryo development.

Another major advantage of this groundbreaking research is its potential to expand current knowledge on in vitro fertilization. Since IVF has already contributed to great progress in reproductive medicine, enabling genetic testing on embryos to prevent inherited diseases (including Huntington's), the creation of artificial embryos for study purposes could expand the horizon even more.

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