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Synthetic Human Embryo

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September 09, 2023

Why in news?

Recently, Israeli scientists have successfully grown a “human embryo” in the lab without using an egg or sperm.

What is an embryo?

  • An embryo is an initial stage of development of a multicellular organism.
  • Sexual reproduction- In organisms that reproduce sexually, embryonic development is the part of the life cycle that begins just after fertilization of the female egg cell and the male sperm cell.
  • Embryo can be defined as an organism in the early stages of development. It undergoes multiple stages of development to develop into a new organism.
  • Embryonic development is called embryogenesis.
  • Foetus- It is the development of a single-cell (zygote) to a multicellular organism (foetus) characterised by the processes of cell division and cellular differentiation of the embryo that occurs during the early stages of development.

embryo

How was the embryo model created?

  • Stem cell mix- They used a mix of stem cells (early cells that have the ability to differentiate into other type of cells).
  • Foetus formation- They used a mix of stem cells and chemicals, a small portion which was able to spontaneously assemble to form different types of cells that form the foetus.
    • Cells that provide nutrient to the foetus.
    • Cells that lay out the plan for development of the body, and
    • Cells that create structures like placenta and umbilical cord to support the foetus.
  • The naive-state stem cells were programmed to become certain types of body tissue, including
    • Epiblast cells - It become the foetus
    • Trophoblast cells- It become the placenta
    • Hypoblast cells- It supports the yolk sac
    • Extraembryonic mesoderm- It contributes to the overall embryo development
  • Early embryo- This was able to spontaneously assemble into embryo like structure, mimicking molecular characteristics of an early embryo.
  • Complete model- The scientists have called it one of the most complete models of a 14-day-old human embryo.
  • None of them fully replicate the processes that happen during the early stages of embryo development, but all of them add to their understanding.
  • Issue faced- Only 1% of this mixture actually assembled spontaneously, making the process not very efficient.

synthetic-embryo

Why are embryo models important?

  • Aim- To provide an ethical way of understanding the earliest moments of our lives.
  • Diagnostic accuracy- The research is crucial because the initial days of embryo development is when the majority of miscarriages and birth defects occur.
  • Studying the initial stages may help understand genetic and inherited diseases better.
  • Improve IVF- Study of normal embryo development, proper genetic code retainment, and the proper implantation in the womb may help in improving success rates of in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
  • Embryonic research- It is important because currently developing alternative models in the lab is the only way to study the early embryo process.
  • Effect on embryo- It allows scientists to understand the genetic, epigenetic and environmental effects on a developing embryo.
  • Genetic medicines- It brings us closer to understand how futuristic genetic medicines can be implemented for the treatment of certain conditions.
  • Error in DNA duplication- These models have helped scientists understand why error arise when the DNA is duplicated.
  • The model has shown that errors occurred much earlier before the separation of daughter cells, when DNA duplication is ongoing.
  • Chromosomal disorder- It also helps to study why one of the daughter cells receives too many or too few chromosomes.
  • Role of genes- It allows to manipulate genes and to understand their developmental roles in a model system.
  • Functional specifications- This model will let us test the function of specific factors, which is difficult to do in the natural embryo.
  • Synthetic embryology- It made a significant milestone by developing the first ever synthetic human embryos.

Can lab-grown embryos be used to get pregnant?

These models are meant to just study the early stages of development of a foetus. They cannot be used to get pregnant.

  • Regulation- It is legally supported in most countries that these embryo models will be destroyed after studying the first 14 days. Attempts to implant are not allowed.
  • Genetic modification- Researchers would also ensure that any model embryo created for donor tissue purposes would be genetically modified to prevent the development of a brain or nervous system.
  • Mimics the properties- Although they mimic several aspects of development, they are not surrogates of actual embryos.

Why is there a 14-day limit on embryo research?

  • The limit was first proposed by a committee in the UK in 1979 after the birth of the first test tube baby.
  • The 14-day period is equivalent to when embryos naturally finish implantation.
  • It is also when cells start becoming an “individual”, and breaking off into a twin is not possible.
  • The ethical considerations become different when it is a clump of cells and when it becomes an individual, often referred to as the Primitive Streak.
  • While the models are not human embryos, they come very close to it.

Primitive Streak is a linear structure that appears in the embryo that marks its transition from having a radial symmetry (like an egg) to the bilateral symmetry of our bodies (marked by left and right hands and legs).

 

References

  1. Indian Express- Whole model of human embryo without egg or sperm
  2. Economic Times- Scientist develop human embryo
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