I am telling you, this story is just…asking for the fertility-controls-you crowd to start losing their shit. More than usual, I mean.
Caroline Parkinson at BBC reports that Japanese scientists have successfully bred mice using sperm made from embryonic stem cells:
Japanese researchers successfully implanted early sperm cells, made from the stem cells, into infertile mice.
The working sperm which they made was then used to father healthy, and crucially fertile, pups, Cell journal reports.
A UK expert said it was a significant step forward in infertility research.
If you’re now thinking, “this is just begging for jumping to conclusions,” you’d be right.
But he said the Kyoto paper was “quite a large step forward” in developing a process by which sperm could be made for infertile men, perhaps by taking as a starting point a cell from their skin or from something like bone marrow.
He added: “Clearly more work needs to be done to refine this process, but it’s hugely exciting.”
That much is fine, but somehow, the comments on the Jezebel story are all about how this means men are about to become obsolete.
This is all very fun for joking—I can open jars, reach high shelves, mow lawns and move house all by my lonesome, thank you—but let’s take a look at the actual procedure, shall we?
Sperm and eggs develop from what are known as primordial germ cells. These germ cells are produced in early stage embryos in a mass of cells called the epiblast. Several years ago, researchers learned how to take epiblast cells from a mouse embryo and create epiblast stem cells that could regenerate in a dish for long periods of time. Researchers hoped that these epiblast stem cells could be used to produce primordial germ cells and ultimately fertile sperm and eggs. But despite years of attempts, no one succeeded. The Kyoto group concluded that when the lab-created epiblast stem cells gained their ability to grow in dishes, they may have lost their ability to form germ cells.
So taking a different approach, the scientists cultured mouse ES cells in cocktails of growth factors and proteins to produce epiblast-like cells that they could keep alive only for several days. They found that they could use 2-day-old cells to generate primordial germ cell-like cells. When injected into the testes of mice unable to produce their own sperm, these primordial germ cells matured into sperm that were able to fertilize eggs in vitro. The researchers implanted the resulting embryos into surrogate mothers, which produced normal offspring. Those mice then produced their own offspring. Saitou and his colleagues report their work online today in Cell.
This procedure involves injecting the lab-grown cells into the testes of otherwise infertile mice, which then develop into usable sperm, which then are able to fertilize eggs in vitro, which a surrogate mother mouse is then able to gestate into healthy offspring. This is exciting! It also requires the involvement of mice with testes.
If we go from “scientists used embryonic stem cells to create sperm-precursor cells” to “now we will create sperm in a lab using adult skin cells,” we’ll soon have the pro-quantity movement’s heads exploding. They see “embryonic stem cells” in the same paragraph as “sperm created in a lab,” and inevitably find the comments by people who haven’t really looked at the research, cackling about how a world without men is right around the corner, and they will think these evil Japanese scientists are killing embryos so that men can be rendered obsolete. It’s like, lesbianism multiplied by abortion, raised to the power of fertility treatments.
It’s the perfect storm for a mushroom cloud of patriarchal insecurity. That would be hilarious. It would also be unwarranted.
It’s possible that this development is a stepping stone to a process that allows women to produce healthy daughters without the slightest participation by men. It’s also possible that someone else will successfully develop a uterine replicator before then, which allows men to produce healthy sons without the slightest help from women.
Saitou says that there are many hurdles to clear. They would like to learn how to develop sperm completely in the laboratory instead of injecting primordial germ cell-like cells into the testes for maturation. They also want to generate eggs in vitro, both to understand the process and to ultimately try to help infertile women. Saitou also says that extending the work to the clinic will require determining if the same recipe they figured out for mouse cells works for human cells as well.
There is a major difference between “would like to learn how to develop sperm completely in the laboratory” and “once we work out the kinks, men will be unnecessary for the perpetuation of human life.” Let’s not count our chickens before the primordial germ cells hatch.