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This week, Nature publishes the results of experiments that used genome editing to modify the DNA of a human embryo. Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute in London and her colleagues have used the CRISPR–Cas9 technique to introduce mutations into a gene called OCT4, and show how the gene is required to steer cell fate as a fertilized egg starts to divide and proliferate (N. M. E. Fogarty et al. Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature24033; 2017).

The research addresses a fundamental question of human biology, but understanding the events of early development could also help to refine culture conditions for embryos in future in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments. It also provides crucial information about the mechanism that underpins the gene-editing technique. The embryos, which had been donated by couples who had undergone IVF treatment, were allowed to develop in the laboratory for only a few days.

Nature published a related paper last month, which explored how gene editing of embryos using CRISPR–Cas9 could correct a specific genetic mutation (H. Ma et al. Nature 548, 413–419; 2017). Those experiments, by Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland and his colleagues, did not use embryos from IVF clinics. Instead, the researchers made them in the lab by fertilizing donated eggs with sperm from a male donor who carries the mutated gene.

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Image: By ekem, Courtesy: RWJMS IVF Program, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=487773

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