In a Cambridge laboratory, a group of scientists is giving birth to a new form of life: synthetic human embryos. I'm not talking about robot babies or androids, but embryos created with stem cells, completely avoiding the need for eggs or sperm.
While similar to those found in early human development, these synthetic structures lack a beating heart or the rudiments of a brain. However, they include the cells that would typically give rise to the placenta, the yolk sac and the embryo itself.
It's the teacher Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology, to drive this daring exploration of the mysterious "black hole" of the developmental period of embryos. This is because, at the moment, scientists can only grow embryos in the laboratory up to a legal limit of 14 days.
Obviously, even these synthetic embryos will not be able to go beyond laboratory test tubes. However, they offer the invaluable opportunity to study how early human life works and, potentially, discover which processes can go wrong, leading to genetic disorders or miscarriages.
Synthetic embryos, race for knowledge
The world of science is in a frantic race to decipher the mysteries related to the very first part of our lives. Professor Żernicka-Goetz's team and a competitor team at the Weizmann Institute in Israel they had already demonstrated that stem cells from mice could be encouraged to form embryo-like structures, complete with intestinal tract, rudiments of brain and beating heart.
This new wave of research has left the law struggling to keep up. At the moment, these entities lab-grown crops fall outside current legislation in the UK and most other countries, raising huge ethical and legal questions.
Concerns about the future
It is not clear whether these synthetic embryos can, in theory, develop into a living being. In the past, synthetic embryos derived from mouse cells looked nearly identical to natural embryos, but when implanted in the uterus of female mice, they did not develop into live animals.
A huge question mark remains whether the obstacle to further development is purely technical or has a more fundamental biological cause. And this only increases the urgency of stronger legislation, a new bioethical challenge.
The current scientific race does not seem to have any intention of slowing down: the world must be ready to keep pace with new developments, and avoid dangerous drifts.