The First Synthetic Human Embryos Now Exist

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Game-Changer: The First Synthetic Human Embryos Now Exist

But they immediately raise serious ethical questions.BY TIM NEWCOMBPUBLISHED: JUN 16, 2023SAVE ARTICLE

in vitro fertilisation, computer illustration


  • During the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s annual meeting, a researcher announced the successful creation of synthetic human embryos.
  • The researchers believe that the synthetic embryos can help further genetic understanding.
  • The lab-grown embryos bring with them a host of ethical and moral dilemmas.

Scientists have reportedly achieved a significant breakthrough by successfully developing the first-ever synthetic human embryos. By utilizing stem cells, researchers were able to create these model embryos without relying on eggs or sperm, thus producing synthetic human embryos. It is important to note that the research findings have not yet been published.

“We can create human embryo-like models by the reprogramming of [embryonic stem] cells,” Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, one of the researchers who worked on this project, announced during a presentation at the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s annual meeting, according to the Guardian.

Scientists believe that studying the embryos will give them insight into what is known as the “black box” period of human development. Researchers are only legally permitted to cultivate an embryo in a lab for up to 14 days. After that, their only windows into development are donated embryos (often further along) and pregnancy scans. The developmental stage between those windows remains a mystery that researchers are very eager to solve.

There are no plans to use the embryos for anything other than clinical research.


These model embryos are created using stem cells that mimic those in the early stages of human development. According to The Guardian, the models are eventually able to reach gastrulation—when the embryo switches from a sheet of cells into distinct cell lines, but still before the heart or brain starts to form.

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As CNN reports, each synthetic embryo comes from only a single human embryonic stem cell “coaxed to develop into three distinct tissue layers” that include cells which would eventually develop into a yolk sac, a placenta, and the actual embryo, respectively.

“I just wish to stress that they are not human embryos,” Zernicka-Goetz tells CNN. “They are embryo models, but they are very exciting because they are very looking similar to human embryos and very important path towards discovery of why so many pregnancies fail, as the majority of the pregnancies fail around the time of the development at which we build these embryo-like structures.”

Previous studies in mice have shown that these synthetic models can continue to grow and develop but, critically, did not develop into full animals. Similar experiments were also done on monkeys, but did not develop very far.


The ethical concerns surrounding this research have been highlighted right along with the results. Many are worried about how the creation and use of these embryo models will be regulated, and there are still questions around how far they could develop. It has yet to be seen whether or not there is any potential for these models to grow into living things, and as such, there is hesitancy abound.

The synthetic embryo program will undoubtedly face significant scrutiny before the models are even considered for widespread laboratory utilization.

Headshot of Tim Newcomb


Tim Newcomb is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. He covers stadiums, sneakers, gear, infrastructure, and more for a variety of publications, including Popular Mechanics. His favorite interviews have included sit-downs with Roger Federer in Switzerland, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and Tinker Hatfield in Portland. 

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