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Developmental biologists have grown human embryos in the lab for up to 13 days after fertilization, shattering the previous record of 9 days. The achievement has already enabled scientists to discover new aspects of early human development, including features never before seen in a human embryo. And the technique could help to determine why some pregnancies fail.

The work, reported this week in Nature1 and Nature Cell Biology2, also raises the possibility that scientists could soon culture embryos to an even more advanced stage. Doing so wouldraise ethical, as well as technical, challenges. Many countries and scientific societies ban research on human embryos that are more than 14 days old; in light of this, the authors of the studies ended their experiments before this point.

Scientists have well understood the earliest stages of life in many other animals for decades. “It’s really embarrassing at the beginning of the twenty-first century that we know more about fish and mice and frogs than we know about ourselves,” says Ali Brivanlou, a developmental biologist at the Rockefeller University in New York City and lead author of the study in Nature. “This is a bit difficult to explain to my students.”

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See Also:  New advances in growing human embryos could prompt ethical firestorm

Image: Rockefeller University Gist Croft, Alessia Deglincerti, and Ali H. Brivanlou

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