Once a fantasy concept taken from works of science fiction, ectogenesis – the growth of an embryo outside of a womb – is getting closer to reality.

In the UK, human embryos have been grown in lab-controlled conditions for 13 days (experiments had to be stopped before the 14th day, for legal reasons). The researchers managed to keep human blastocysts (the agglomerate of cells that will eventually develop into an embryo) viable after the 10-day period when they normally implant into the wall of the uterus – a landmark achievement.

Advances towards ectogenesis don’t end here though. Just last year, researchers in Israel developed the first synthetic embryos, meaning that they created embryos without using sperm cells or eggs. The synthetic embryos were created with mice stem cells and although they could not fully develop into live animals, they hint at a future where organs can be synthetically grown in a lab. Simultaneously, a team in the UK also used stem cells to create a synthetic embryo, one that had a beating heart and even started developing a brain.

Creating embryo-like structures without the requirement of fertilisation and sex cells is yet another stepping stone for ectogenesis.

An exciting advancement is the ‘biobag’, an artificial womb developed in the US. The system allowed the full development of lamb fetuses, transferred to the biobag at 104–135 days old, the equivalent to a 22-week-old human fetus.

An exciting advancement is the ‘biobag’, an artificial womb developed in the US

The system mimics the fluid environment inside the womb, as well as the umbilical cord’s nutrient exchanges.

The biobag is particularly interesting when compared to incubators. During development, the fetus’ lungs are surrounded by the amniotic fluid until they are born. The fluid is crucial for the correct development of the lungs. Because the lungs keep maturing until the end of the gestation period, premature babies kept in incubators often develop chronic lung diseases. The biobag keeps the premature fetus enveloped in fluid, which can prevent these diseases.

The system may one day ensure the survival of extremely premature babies, as well as allow for the early correction of malformations or targeted treatment of the fetus without affecting the mother.

With ectogenesis at a reachable distance, it’s time to start thinking of the ethical implications of these advancements. What will it mean for women’s reproductive health, bodily autonomy, gender equality or traditional societal roles?

Sound Bites

•        Elephants like to eat bananas, but they don’t usually peel them first in the way humans do. A new report however, shows that one very special Asian elephant named Pang Pha picked up banana peeling all on her own while living at the Berlin Zoo. She reserves it for yellow-brown bananas, first breaking the banana before shaking out and collecting the pulp, leaving the thick peel behind.

•        A new study suggests that predatory dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus rex, did not have permanently exposed teeth as depicted in films such as Jurassic Park, but instead had scaly, lizard-like lips covering and sealing their mouths. For your exposed teeth fetish, go for those extinct sabre-toothed mammals or marine reptiles.

For more soundbites, listen to Radio Mocha Malta https://www.fb.com/RadioMochaMalta/.

DID YOU KNOW?

•        Eels have a curious journey of reproduction. Globally, there are only three breeding spots of eels, one is the Sargasso Sea.

•        Did you know that chameleons were introduced to Malta as pets by the protestant missionaries returning from Africa between 1846 and 1865?

•        Sarpa Salpa, commonly known as Salema Porgy or the dreamfish, induces a psychedelic experience when consumed.

For more trivia, see: www.um.edu.mt/think.

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