Chinese scientists have successfully grown mouse embryos in space, the first reported development of mammalian embryos in space history.
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) launched a microgravity research satellite probe on 6 April which contained over 6,000 early-stage mouse embryos in a self-sufficient chamber the size of a microwave. Of the 6000 embryos, 600 were analysed under a high-resolution camera, which monitored embryo development, taking pictures every four hours over a period of four days.
The images received from the satellite showed that the mouse embryos developed from an early embryonic two-cell stage to the blastocyst stage within 96 hours from the launch of the satellite – a timeframe similar to embryonic development on Earth.
Professor Duan Enkui of the Institute of Zoology affiliated to the CAS, and principal researcher on the study, commented: 'The human race may still have a long way to go before we can colonise space. But before that we have to figure out whether it is possible for us to survive and reproduce in the outer space environment like we do on Earth.'
'Now, we finally proved that the most crucial step in our reproduction – the early embryo development – is possible in the outer space,' he added.
Previously, scientists believed that gravity was needed for the development of an embryo to ensure the correct cell orientation and alignment for limb, organ and tissue production. In order to determine the effect of the space environment on embryonic development, the remaining embryos were subject to fixative solution 72 hours after the satellite launched. The SJ-10 satellite will return to Earth over the coming days with further experiments being undertaken on the returning embryos.
Professor Aaron Hsueh from Stanford University, who was not involved in the study, said: 'This represents an important milestone in human space exploration.'
The SJ-10 probe houses 19 experiments in total, including one study examining how space radiation affects the genetic stability of fruit flies and rat cells.