Eggs and ethics
New fertility technique for mice has troubling implications
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For the first time, Japanese researchers have created living animals from “artificial” eggs. Scientists are hailing the research, published in the journal Nature on Oct. 17, as a first step toward using the technique to treat human infertility.
But David Prentice, a biochemist and vice president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, warns that if such a procedure becomes possible it will turn humans into mere commodities.
The scientists took skin cells from the tips of mouse tails and reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, which are capable of transforming into any other cell type. Next, they transformed the iPSCs into functional egg cells by combining them with mouse fetal ovary tissue in a lab dish. The scientists then fertilized the eggs with mouse sperm and implanted the resulting embryos into surrogate mouse mothers. Some of the embryos that survived experienced delayed development, and those that were born showed chromosomal changes. But the baby mice ultimately grew up to be healthy, without apparent abnormalities, and were fertile.
Prentice said it was fine and ethically acceptable for the researchers to create iPSCs. But he noted the only way for the research team to convert the iPSCs into functional eggs was to use mouse fetal ovary tissue: To use the technique in humans, they would most likely be using material from aborted human babies.
In humans this process would also allow researchers to create an unlimited number of eggs for experimentation. Limited egg supply has always constrained research involving ethically problematic techniques such as human cloning, three-parent embryos, and animal-human hybrids. But Prentice warned this new approach using artificial eggs would be sadly well-suited for “unlimited experiments creating and destroying human embryos.”
A new kind of optical fiber may greatly advance the medical use of light therapy in the human body. Researchers from MIT and Harvard Medical School made highly stretchable fibers they say are as bendable as a rope of licorice and can be implanted in the brain. The fibers are made from hydrogel, a rubbery material composed mostly of water.
Inside the body, the implanted fibers could light up at the first sign of injury or inflammation. Doctors might one day use them to deliver therapeutic pulses of light, to detect disease, or to monitor tumors. —J.B.
Scientists have known for centuries that we inhabit a vast universe, but according to astronomers from The University of Nottingham, we are just beginning to grasp how vast. Scientists have previously estimated up to 200 billion galaxies swirl through space. Based on new data, the Nottingham researchers say the figure is likely 10 times that.
In their research published in the October issue of The Astrophysical Journal, the astronomers took images of deep space obtained from telescopes around the world and converted them into 3-D maps. They calculated the volume and density of galaxies in one tiny bit of space after another, plugged those numbers into mathematical models, and concluded the number of galaxies in our universe is at least 2 trillion.
“It boggles the mind that over 90 percent of the galaxies in the universe have yet to be studied,” said lead researcher Christopher Conselice in a statement. “Who knows what interesting properties we will find when we study these galaxies with the next generation of telescopes.” —J.B.
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