WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Researchers have shown for the first time that future generations won’t need a mum or dad.
Depending on the circles you travel in it’s always been touted that men need women in order to have children but that women don’t necessarily need men, but now it appears that neither men nor women are needed. And that’s a freaky concept.
Researchers have, for the first time, succeeded in creating healthy baby mice by tricking sperm into believing they were fertilising normal eggs and the findings in Nature Communications could, in the not too distant future, mean women can be removed from the baby making process – something that until now has been almost unthinkable.
So could we one day really see the end of “Mum” and “Dad” – and for that matter “Grandma” and “Grandpa”? The scientists think so and so far the evidence is pointing that way.
How it works
Scientists at the University of Bath started with a plain, unfertilised egg in their experiments then they used chemicals to trick it into becoming a pseudo-embryo. These “fake” embryos share a lot in common with ordinary cells, such as skin cells, and divide and control their DNA in a similar way.
The researchers reasoned that if injecting sperm into mouse pseudo-embryos could produce healthy babies, then it might one day be possible to achieve a similar result in humans using cells that are not from eggs and in the mouse experiments the odds of achieving a successful pregnancy was one in four which, for an emerging field of research isn’t all that bad. one could say that those are good odds.
“This is the first time that anyone has been able to show that anything other than an egg can combine with a sperm in this way to give rise to offspring and it overturns nearly 200 years of thinking,” said Dr Tony Perry, one of the researchers.
Furthermore the baby mice that were born were healthy, had a normal life expectancy and – perhaps even more staggering, went on to have healthy pups of their own.
What happens next
The goal of the researchers is to understand the exact mechanisms of fertilisation because what happens when a sperm fuses with an egg is still a bit of a mystery, for example, the egg completely strips the sperm’s DNA of all its chemical clothing and re-dresses it and that stops the sperm behaving like a sperm and makes it act like an embryo, but how this “costume change” takes place is not clear. And as if we needed reminding removing the need for an egg could have a wider impact on society.
“One possibility, in the distant future, is that it might be possible that ordinary cells in the body can be combined with a sperm so that an embryo is formed,” said Dr Perry.
In other words, two men could have a child with one donating an ordinary cell and the other donating the sperm – which in itself could one day be recreated in the lab from stem cells without the need for a man. Or, perhaps even more peculiar one man could have his own child using his own cells and sperm – with that child being more like a non-identical twin than a clone.
Dr Perry stressed that such scenarios were still “speculative and fanciful” at this stage but nevertheless this experiment shows that that outcome could be increasingly likely.
Earlier this year in China, scientists were able to make sperm from stem cells and then fertilise an egg to produce healthy mice and Dr Perry suggested that combining the two fields of research may eventually do without the need for sperm and eggs altogether.
“I’m not surprised that the authors are excited about this. I think it is a very interesting paper, and a technical tour de force and I am sure it will tell us something important about reprogramming at these early steps of development that are relevant to both fertilisation and single cell nuclear transfer [cloning]. And, perhaps more broadly, about reprogramming of cell fate in other situations. While the paper doesn’t explicitly tell us how the researchers pulled it off it gives a number of clear pointers,” said Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, from the Francis Crick Institute.