Mice Develop Inside An Artificial Womb

Well, it looks like those fetus fields from The Matrix (1999) just became a little bit more plausible. Although people-growing is probably a long way off, mice can now mostly develop inside an artificial uterus (try private window if you hit a paywall) thanks to a breakthrough in developmental biology. So far, the mice can only be kept alive halfway through gestation. There’s a point at which the nutrient formula provided to them isn’t enough, and they need a blood supply to continue growing. That’s the next goal. For now, let’s talk about that mechanical womb setup.

Carousel of Care

The mechanical womb was developed to better understand how various factors such as gene mutations, nutrients, and environmental conditions affect murine fetuses in development. Why do miscarriages occur, and why do fertilized eggs fail to implant in the first place? How exactly does an egg explode into 40 trillion cells when things do work out? This see-through uterus ought to reveal a few more of nature’s gestational secrets.

Dr. Jacob Hanna of Israel’s Weizmann Institute spent seven years building the two-part system of incubators, nutrients, and ventilation. Each mouse embryo floats in a glass jar, suspended in a concoction of liquid nutrients. A carousel of jars slowly spins around night and day to keep the embryos from attaching to the sides of the jars and dying. Along with the nutrient fluid, the mice receive a carefully-controlled mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide from the ventilation machine. Dr. Hanna and his team have grown over 1,000 embryos this way.

Full gestation in mice takes about 20 days. As outlined in the paper published in Nature, Dr. Hanna and team removed mouse embryos at day five of gestation and were able to grow them for six more days in the artificial wombs. When compared with uterus-grown mice on day eleven, their sizes and weights were identical.  According to an interview after the paper was published, the team have already gone even further, removing  embryos right after fertilization on day zero, and growing them for eleven days inside the mechanical womb. The next step is figuring out how to provide an artificial blood supply, or a more advanced system of nutrients that will let the embryos grow until they become mice.

Embryonic Ethics

Here’s the most interesting part: the team doesn’t necessarily have to disrupt live gestation to get their embryos. New techniques allow embryos to be created from murine connective tissue cells called fibroblasts without needing fertilized eggs. Between this development and Dr. Hanna’s carousel of care, there would no longer be a need to fertilize eggs merely to destroy them later.

It’s easy to say that any and all animal testing is unethical because we can’t exactly get their consent (not that we would necessarily ask for it). At the same time, it’s true that we learn a lot from testing on animals first. Our lust for improved survival is at odds with our general empathy, and survival tends to win out on a long enough timeline. A bunch of people die every year waiting for organ transplants, and scientists are already growing pigs for that express purpose. And unlocking more mysteries of the gestation process make make surrogate pregnancies possible for more animals in the frozen zoo.

In slightly more unnerving news, some have recently created embryos that are part human and part monkey for the same reason. Maybe this is how we get to planet of the apes.

38 thoughts on “Mice Develop Inside An Artificial Womb

    1. Perhaps interesting ethics there. The transition between a frozen egg and a newborn presumably is also non person to person. Can frozen eggs take more risks than hatched people?

      Don’t think Q would be very entertained by frozen eggs though.

      1. Even further down the ethical rabbit hole. Imagine being born and growing up to find out that you are on a (maybe) suicide mission to another planet. What would you be told as you grew about the past of the human race, if anything?

      2. In every large city, thousands of fertilized eggs get flushed or thrown in the trash every day, so we’re way past that ethics threshold. Same with frozen embryos in IVF centers, although at a much lower rate. Still, most societies have decided it is acceptable as they are not yet “people”. Something important to keep in mind with these questions is that the distinct person exists in the brain and quite honestly, human brains are still heavily pruning connections at birth. The signal paths are not yet structured. Although we like to imbue our newborns with things like recognition & organized thought (I did, and would again), the science is clear that they do not yet have organized, structured signals in their brains yet. It’s easily fully distinct enough to not have to worry about the sometimes presented pseudo-slippery slope of, “what about people with [insert developmental disability here]”.

  1. “In slightly more unnerving news, some have recently created embryos that are part human and part monkey for the same reason. ”

    New meaning to the idiom,”well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle”.

  2. i dont think you’ll find really anyone in these circles who really outright objects to this project, this requires less of the cold calculated decision making not accustom to our lot. most of us (probably) see this as a crucial component in our evolution as a species

  3. Anyone else getting SMAC Cloning Vat vibes?
    “We shall take only the greatest minds, the finest soldiers, the most faithful servants. We shall multiply them a thousandfold and release them to usher in a new era of glory.”
    — Col. Corazon Santiago, “The Council of War”

    1. That article leaves me with a couple of questions. Did the goat recover and develop normally? And where did they source the fetal blood and amniotic proteins? Not very workable if they have to be sourced in the normal way.
      Then, it was 19 years ago, did they make further progress?

      1. Not sure where it went, you could use a research search engine to see what the original authors of the work have done since I guess. I’ve not bothered to look into it further myself.

      2. If I recall correct, the original work was like from even further back in time, like the 50’s or 60’s in Sweden. Reminds me a neural link… like that’s new… not…, when in reality that’s old tech from Delgado’s work in the 50’s and 60’s.

  4. As an older but still practicing OB/GYN, I find the prospect of an artificial human uterus strange (for lack of a better word) but an inevitable outcome of need and science once we get past a number of obstacles, not the least of which are ethics.

  5. >It’s easy to say that any and all animal testing is unethical because we can’t exactly get their consent (not that we would necessarily ask for it).

    One does not need the consent of a mind that does not exist. It would be impossible anyhow, and the ethical problem here is completely made up.

    The thing is, people like to assume that all living creatures have a “soul”, for lack of a better definition, because we apply the same superstition even to inanimate objects like rocks or the wind. That’s why we invent spirits and ghosts as well – we project our own intentions and consciousness onto other things in attempts to make sense of their behavior. In doing so we tend to project that an insect or a mouse also has a mind such as our own, completely regardless, so we place our empathy on an imagination.

    1. So basically, arguments like, “It’s unethical to eat meat and test drugs on animals”, are in a sense just variants of, “It’s sacrilege to enter the shrine without washing your feet first”.

      One may understand why it is so in some particular case, such as, you don’t want dirt on a very fine expensive rug around the shrine so you invent the rule that it’s offensive to God to soil it, or you may argue that it’s unethical to eat a gorilla because it is so like us that it can communicate and express thoughts, but making the same arguments categorically is just magical thinking.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.