Creating embryos in the lab: How, why, and what the future holds

Written by Hannah Flynn — Fact checked by Ferdinand Lali, Ph.D.

Why are scientists creating ’embryos’ without sperm or eggs? Image credit: Science Photo Library – ZEPHYR/Getty Images.

Creating an embryo from cells other than sperm and egg cells and then growing them outside the uterus is an area of study that has developed significantly over the past 5 years. How long until we unlock the “black box” of human embryology?

This month, researchers announced that they have been culturing a mouse embryo model made entirely out of embryonic stem cells and without the use of a sperm and egg, or a uterus, for 8.5 days, about 2 days longer than previous experiments had achieved. 

Genetic analysis revealed that the structures and cell activity in these embryo models were 95% similar to real mouse embryos and functional. This suggests that these models were similar enough to natural embryos that they could be studied to gain insight into how they work.

Research on both mice and human embryos can offer insight into the mechanisms that allow them to divide, implant, and develop. However, being able to build them from scratch helps researchers bypass potentially expensive and unethical experiments on embryos and also helps them verify if assumptions about how they work are correct. 

A paper recently published in Cell outlines the achievement by researchers in Prof. Jacob Hanna’s laboratory at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

This is the latest step in a long line of incremental steps in recent years to create an embryo from scratch in the lab.

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