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Scientists hail new era of ‘motherless babies’

For 200 years, our knowledge of reproduction has been clear: sperm + egg = baby. But scientists say they may have found a way to create babies with two biological dads. Should we celebrate? Which came first: the chicken or the egg? It is a question pondered since the time of Ancient Greece, when Aristotle decided that the answer must be both. Now, scientists say the egg could be removed from the equation all together. Dr Tony Perry and his team announced this week that they have successfully bred mice without using a normal egg cell. Instead, they used sperm to fertilise a kind of non-viable embryo called a parthenogenote, which multiplies more like a normal cell. Then they ‘tricked’ it into developing into an embryo using special chemicals, planted it into a surrogate, and a new mouse was born. It survived, and even went on to have offspring of its own. The results challenge two centuries of reproductive biology. We thought that only a sperm and an egg cell could create a mammal baby. But Perry says that in theory, the technique could be used to fertilise other cells in the body, such as skin cells, as long as half the chromosomes were removed first. In a ‘speculative and fanciful’ world, this could allow two men to have a baby which shared both their genes. ‘Will we be able to do that? I don’t know,’ he said. ‘But I think if it is ever possible, people will look back and say this is where it started.’ Elsewhere, scientists have been speculating about another kind of ‘motherless baby’: one grown outside the womb. This process was named ‘ectogenesis’ in 1924 by British scientist J.B.S. Haldane. He predicted that by 2074, only 30% of births would be natural. But the transhumanist Zoltan Istvan believes that this will happen much sooner — closer to 20 or 30 years. Scientists have already grown goat and mouse embryos in artificial wombs, he points out. The science of these is very complex. But it essentially involves ‘an amniotic fluid-filled aquarium with a bunch of feeding tubes and monitoring cables.’ Combine these two scientific concepts — two-dad babies and artificial wombs — and you could detach women from reproduction entirely. Baby talk This could be an amazing opportunity, says Istvan. Childbirth has been used to oppress women since the dawn of time, whether by declaring them ‘unclean’, or forcing them to stay at home, or paying them less than men. Freed from biology, women could truly be in charge of when and how they have children. As a bonus, gay men and infertile women would not need surrogates. Be careful, warn others. Less than ten years after Haldane coined the word ‘ectogenesis’, Aldous Huxley wrote the sci-fi novel Brave New World, featuring a chilling ‘Hatchery and Conditioning Centre’ where hundreds of babies were grown and sorted into ‘castes’. It reminds us that well-meaning technology can be used for darker motives. KeywordsCastes - Hereditary social classes in Hindu society.

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