It's inevitable: genetic manipulation is going to blow open the doors of biological experimentation in ways we can’t even imagine. Techniques such as cloning and CRISPR/Cas-9 have allowed scientists to play with DNA and genes as if they were LEGO bricks, hinting at the forthcoming arrival of bizarre new designer species of living things. However, ethical and moral concerns have so far prevented many of these techniques from being tested on human beings. Our bodies, after all, are merely temples for His Noodliness, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Any genetic experimentation is akin to defiling His temple. You wouldn’t want to defile His temple, would you? Because if you did, I’d have to ask you to leave.

Accept His Noodly Magnificence into your heart, into your soul, and ye shall forever be free. R'Amen.

At any rate, the moral hurdles standing between the present and a future full of genetic superhumans might have just been eliminated thanks to a breakthrough announced by geneticists at the University of Cambridge. In a press release, the researchers claim that they have successfully created the first viable embryo from “scratch” using a mix of genetically-modified trophoblast stem cells, embryonic stem cells, and a 3D-printed matrix. So far, the technique has only been performed using mouse cells, but there is no reason why it couldn’t soon be applied to cells from a different mammalian species: humans.

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Normal embryo development, top, and artificial embryo development, bottom.

Cambridge physiology professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz believes these ‘artificial’ embryos could open the doors to all sorts of new avenues of research that have previously been blocked by ethical constraints placed on human experimentation:

We are very optimistic that this will allow us to study key events of this critical stage of human development without actually having to work on embryos. Knowing how development normally occurs will allow us to understand why it so often goes wrong.

In their data published in Science, the researchers hint at combining this new technique with other genetic modification methods in order to fully manipulate and dictate the growth of mammalian organisms from the earliest stages of development:

This stem cell model of mammalian embryogenesis, in combination with genetic manipulations, might provide a potentially powerful platform to dissect physical and molecular mechanisms that mediate this critical crosstalk during natural embryogenesis.

It’s gonna be a weird, weird future, friends. One day, we might live in a world similar to the one depicted in the 1997 film Gattaca in which sexually-produced, normal humans are deemed by society to be inferior to their genetically-modified, designer counterparts. It's worth a re-watch now; in light of this recent research, the film strikes a new level of resonance.

Artificial embryo left, and in vitro embryo, right. Looks like the artificial one's better at getting his act together.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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