Imagine two men making a baby. Or two women. Or an infertile couple. Or an older woman whose eggs are no longer viable. None of these people could have a baby today without the help of an egg or sperm donor.
Cells scraped from the inside of your cheek could one day be manipulated to become either eggs or sperm.
But in the future, it may be possible for them to reproduce using only their own genetic material, thanks to an emerging technology called IVG, or in vitro gametogenesis.
Researchers are learning how to reprogram adult human cells like skin cells to become lab-created egg and sperm cells, which could then be joined to form an embryo. In other words, cells scraped from the inside of your cheek could one day be manipulated to become either eggs or sperm, no matter your gender or your reproductive fitness.
In 2016, Japanese scientists proved that the concept could be successfully carried out in mice. Now some experts, like Dr. John Zhang, the founder and CEO of New Hope Fertility Center in Manhattan, say it's just "a matter of time" before the method is also made to work in humans.
Such a technological tour de force would upend our most basic assumptions about human reproduction and biology. Combined with techniques like gene editing, these tools could eventually enable prospective parents to have an unprecedented level of choice and control over their children's origins. It's a wildly controversial notion, and an especially timely one now that a Chinese scientist has announced the birth of the first allegedly CRISPR-edited babies. (The claims remain unverified.)
Zhang himself is no stranger to controversy. In 2016, he stunned the world when he announced the birth of a baby conceived using the DNA of three people, a landmark procedure intended to prevent the baby from inheriting a devastating neurological disease. (Zhang went to a clinic in Mexico to carry out the procedure because it is prohibited in the U.S.) Zhang's other achievements to date include helping a 49-year-old woman have a baby using her own eggs and restoring a young woman's fertility through an ovarian tissue transplant surgery.
Zhang recently sat down with our Editor-in-Chief in his New York office overlooking Columbus Circle to discuss the fertility world's latest provocative developments. Here are his top ten insights:
Clearly [gene-editing embryos] will be beneficial to mankind, but it's a matter of how and when the work is done.
1) On a Chinese scientist's claim of creating the first CRISPR-edited babies:
I'm glad that we made a first move toward a clinical application of this technology for mankind. Somebody has to do this. Whether this was a good case or not, there is still time to find out.
Clearly it will be beneficial to mankind, but it's a matter of how and when the work is done. Like any scientific advance, it has to be done in a very responsible way.
Today's response is identical to when the world's first IVF baby was announced in 1978. The major news media didn't take it seriously and thought it was evil, wanted to keep a distance from IVF. Many countries even abandoned IVF, but today you see it is a normal practice. And it took almost 40 years [for the researchers] to win a Nobel Prize.
I think we need more time to understand how this work was done medically, ethically, and let the scientist have the opportunity to present how it was done and let a scientific journal publish the paper. Before these become available, I don't think we should start being upset, scared, or giving harsh criticism.
2) On the international outcry in response to the news:
I feel we are in scientific shock, with many thinking it came too fast, too soon. We all embrace modern technology, but when something really comes along, we fear it. In an old Chinese saying, one of the masters always dreamed of seeing the dragon, and when the dragon really came, he got scared.
Dr. John Zhang, the founder and CEO of New Hope Fertility Center in Manhattan, pictured in his office.
3) On the Western world's perception that Chinese scientists sometimes appear to discount ethics in favor of speedy breakthroughs:
I think this perception is not fair. I don't think China is very casual. It's absolutely not what people think. I don't want people to feel that this case [of CRISPR-edited babies] will mean China has less standards over how human reproduction should be performed. Just because this happened, it doesn't mean in China you can do anything you want.
As far as the regulation of IVF clinics, China is probably the most strictly regulated of any country I know in this world.
4) On China's first public opinion poll gauging attitudes toward gene-edited babies, indicating that more than 60 percent of survey respondents supported using the technology to prevent inherited diseases, but not to enhance traits:
There is a sharp contrast between the general public and the professional world. Being a working health professional and an advocate of scientists working in this field, it is very important to be ethically responsible for what we are doing, but my own feeling is that from time to time we may not take into consideration what the patient needs.
5) On how the three-parent baby is doing today, several years after his birth:
No news is good news.
6) On the potentially game-changing research to develop artificial sperm and eggs:
First of all I think that anything that's technically possible, as long as you are not harmful to other people, to other societies, as long as you do it responsibly, and this is a legitimate desire, I think eventually it will become reality.
My research for now is really to try to overcome the very next obstacle in our field, which is how to let a lady age 44 or older have a baby with her own genetic material.
Practically 99 percent of women over age 43 will never make a baby on their own. And after age 47, we usually don't offer donor egg IVF anymore.
But with improved longevity, and quality of life, the lifespan of females continues to increase. In Japan, the average for females is about 89 years old. So for more than half of your life, you will not be able to produce a baby, which is quite significant in the animal kingdom. In most of the animal kingdom, their reproductive life is very much the same as their life, but then you can argue in the animal kingdom unlike a human being, it doesn't take such a long time for them to contribute to the society because once you know how to hunt and look for food, you're done.
"I think this will become a major ethical debate: whether we should let an older lady have a baby at a very late state of her life."
But humans are different. You need to go to college, get certain skills. It takes 20 years to really bring a human being up to become useful to society. That's why the mom and dad are not supposed to have the same reproductive life equal to their real life.
I think this will become a major ethical debate: whether we should let an older lady have a baby at a very late state of her life and leave the future generation in a very vulnerable situation in which they may lack warm caring, proper guidance, and proper education.
7) On using artificial gametes to grant more reproductive choices to gays and lesbians:
I think it is totally possible to have two sperm make a baby, and two eggs make babies.
If we have two guys, one guy to produce eggs, or two girls, one would have to become sperm. Basically you are creating artificial gametes or converting with gametes from sperm to become egg or egg to become a sperm. Which may not necessarily be very difficult. The key is to be able to do nuclear reprogramming.
So why can two sperm not make offspring now? You get exactly half of your genes from each parent. The genes have their own imprinting that say "made in mom," "made in dad." The two sperm would say "made in dad," "made in dad." If I can erase the "made in dad," and say "made in mom," then these sperm can make offspring.
8) On how close science is to creating artificial gametes for clinical use in pregnancies:
It's very hard to say until we accomplish it. It could be very quick. It could be it takes a long time. I don't want to speculate.
"I think these technologies are the solid foundation just like when we designed the computer -- we never thought a computer would become the iPhone."
9) On whether there should be ethical red lines drawn by authorities or whether the decisions should be left to patients and scientists:
I think we cannot believe a hundred percent in the scientist and the patient but it should not be 100 percent authority. It should be coming from the whole of society.
10) On his expectations for the future:
We are living in a very exciting world. I think that all these technologies can really change the way of mankind and also are not just for baby-making. The research, the experience, the mechanism we learn from these technologies, they will shine some great lights into our long-held dream of being a healthy population that is cancer-free and lives a long life, let's say 120 years.
I think these technologies are the solid foundation just like when we designed the computer -- we never thought a computer would become the iPhone. Imagine making a computer 30 years ago, that this little chip will change your life.
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo concept sneaker, made in partnership with Bolt Threads, uses an alternative leather grown from mycelium; a commercial version is expected in the near future.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping, and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans, and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."