Chinese scientists have successfully grown mouse embryos in space, becoming the first group in the world to overcome the biological hurdles of reproduction in orbit. If confirmed, the findings suggest mammals could one day reproduce in the harsh microgravity environment of space – which could vastly improve the chances of humans being able to colonise distant worlds.
Scientists in China claim to have successfully grown mouse embryos in space,
making them the first group in the world to successfully do so. The team sent
early embryos (pictured above) into orbit aboard a probe,
which developed into blastocysts (below)
Scientists feared the development of embryos on Earth require gravity to ensure cells organise correctly so the resulting limbs, organs and tissues.
According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the early stage mouse embryos were launched aboard the SJ-10 space probe with a number of other experiments earlier this month, in a retrievable capsule. The capsule spent several days in orbit aboard the SJ-10 probe before returning to Earth.
High resolution images show that some of the embryos developed into balls of cells called blastocysts – a key developmental stage at which the embryo can be implanted into the womb. Exposing mice embryos to microgravity is a key step in the long path to colonising other planets.
Space agencies have carried out a number of experiments in which embryos have been taken into space to expose them to microgravity, before being returned to Earth for implantation in surrogate mice. However, previous attempts to grow mammalian embryos have been hampered by biological factors.
In the mid-1990s, Nasa astronauts attempted to develop mouse embryos aboard the Colombia space shuttle. But embryos exposed stopped growing at an early stage of cell division, indicating that gravity played a crucial role in embryonic development.
The breakthrough findings reported by the Chinese team look to have overcome the issues which have plagued previous attempts.
Speaking to China Daily, principle researcher of the experiment, Professor Duan Enkui of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: 'The human race may still have a long way to go before we can colonize space. 'But before that, we have to figure out whether it is possible for us to survive and reproduce in the outer space environment like we do on Earth.'
He added: 'Now, we finally proved that the most crucial step in our reproduction – the early embryo development – is possible in the outer space.'
According to China Daily, more than 6,000 embryos were carried aboard the probe in a self-contained chamber the size of a microwave, which contained the cell culture and nutrients.
Following their recovery, the embryos will undergo further analysis to see if their brief time in space has affected their cell structure, function, and gene expression.