Gay couples may soon be able to have their own biological kids

Human egg cells can now be created from donor blood — a brave new world is upon us.

A false color image of the results of the study. Immature human eggs are shown in pink. (Courtesy of Saitou Lab)
  • Japanese scientists have successfully created immature human egg cells using stem cells.
  • The discovery builds on years of research into the uses of stem cells.
  • While the prospects for new fertility treatments are promising, the ethical questions raised by the procedure will have to be answered.

Japanese scientists have changed blood cells into stem cells which were then used to create immature human egg cells. While the new eggs are too immature to be of any use, the study, published on September 20 in Science, points the way to new fertility treatments as well as ethical concerns that are unlike anything we've encountered before.

How did they do it?

The scientists took human blood cells and used a previously known method to transform them into human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs). These cells can be changed into any other cell, making them extremely useful in medical research and giving them endless potential for future treatments.

While previous studies have attempted to create lab-grown human eggs from stem cells before, those attempts were all unsuccessful. The trick, it seems, was to put the new egg cells into a miniature ovary built for this task out of cells taken from mice. This allowed the scientists to succeed where others had failed.

What can we do with this?

While the eggs produced in this study are immature and incapable of doing anything, there is reason to hope that over the long run fully functioning eggs will be created. This has already been done for mice, although making that work for human cells will be a little more difficult.

Artificially created mature human egg cells could be used in a variety of fertility treatments. They could be produced for those born infertile, people who have lost their fertility due to illness, or even for gay couples who want to have a child with their own genetic makeup and not that of a donor. On a more mundane level, mature eggs could be created on demand for research purposes.

The study's authors stated that the next step for them will be to try and produce mature egg and sperm cells that could actually be used for reproduction. It may only be a matter of time before fully functioning lab grown human gametes are a reality.

What are the ethical concerns?

This process currently allows immature eggs to be created that have the DNA of the blood cell donor. If the procedure is perfected and mature sperm and eggs can be produced, a brave new world of genetic selection may be upon us. One in which desirable DNA can be bought and sold to create gametes with desirable genetic qualities. Ronald Green, a Dartmouth bioethicist who often works on issues related to stem cells, explains one of the many strange possibilities that we may soon face:

A woman might want to have George Clooney's baby, and his hairdresser could start selling his hair follicles online. So we suddenly could see many, many progeny of George Clooney without his consent.

In addition to the possibility of genetic theft, the ability for any person to have their cells turned into eggs which could lead to a successful birth allows for the creation of children from the cells of the recently deceased. A creepy situation that we will undoubtedly have to reckon with.

People in need of new organs might see fit to have a child created with their DNA to provide a spare kidney a few years down the road. This is already happening in the form of ethically ambiguous savior siblings and was explored in the book and film My Sister's Keeper. Will the morality of the child's creation be any different if the child is tailor made for the person in need of a donor rather than the old fashioned way?

We must begin asking ourselves now how we will react to these ethical questions since the science won't slow down for us.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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