When I was a kid I sent away for a packet of sea monkeys. I wasn't sure what they were, exactly, the drawing in the back of my comic book making them look like the Cleavers' amphibious Martian cousins. But they were hard to resist, the ad touting their ease and instant-lifeness, the fact that all one had to do was add the eggs to water and, in some sort of miraculous alchemy, live baby sea monkeys would appear.
The promise of nurturing instant life at my convenience thrilled me. It was stupefying, really, the stuff of science fiction, a mere mortal being able to bear witness to a coming alive when given the time and inclination (and $1.25 plus 50 cents for postage and handling). No matter that sea monkeys ended up resembling spiny water bugs more than June, Beaver, or Curious George, no matter that their habitat was a pilfered glass bowl rather than anything remotely approximating an aquarium, it was exhilarating to be responsible for their existence and incredible that something as profound as actual life could be set in motion by somebody as regular as seven-year-old me in a place as humdrum as the Milwaukee bedroom of my youth. The original batch reproduced on their own, a couple of generations thriving in a Pyrex bowl on my desk until one day when, defying my mother's edict not to practice gymnastics in my room, I accidentally kicked the bowl over and watched, helpless, as the entire colony got absorbed by the shag carpet.
Though they endured for nearly a year, I haven't thought about my sea monkeys for a long time. They came to mind this past week, however, when I heard about a scientific breakthrough that could eventually allow people to create living beings, possibly even human ones, on command, age be damned. As reported in the journal Science, a research team from Kyoto University created eggs from the stem cells of a mouse. It was the first time scientists successfully produced fully-functional mammalian eggs. The team, led by Dr. Mitinori Saitou, also figured out how to use both embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, growing both into eggs. They then followed IVF protocols, implanting the eggs into a mouse that bore healthy pups that went on to reproduce naturally.
"They've gotten to what was our Holy Grail," George Daley, a leading stem-cell scientist at Harvard said in an interview with NPR, "which is making eggs. It's like cellular alchemy. I mean, they can turn lead into gold here. They can turn skin cells or blood cells into eggs."
As if the creation of viable mammalian eggs weren't extraordinary enough, the fact of an embryonic stem cell alternative is huge. While the cultivation of embryonic stem cells necessitates the destruction of embryos, iPS cells are adult cells that share their donor's DNA but originate from way less ethically and politically charged sources. Skin, say. Or blood. A hangnail or paper cut, maybe. In this case, researchers reprogrammed them to an embryonic-like state without any of the ethical mess or questions over personhood or "life," God or Satan.
Those questions will surely arise once this advance gives way to speculation about the slippery slope, scenarios about unintended parenthood by way of a celebrity's pilfered Kleenex or the harvesting of still-warm tissue from the recently deceased. A human being could be born an orphan, biological relation a mere technicality as lab techs and scientists ooh, aah, and hand out cigars to celebrate their latest advance -- the birth of a baby resulting from a pinch of this manipulated sperm and a soupçon of that engineered egg.
Though it is still some way off, scientists say the potential for applying the technology to human beings is real and could eventually yield new reproductive options. It also suggests the possibility that infertile women could eventually become pregnant with eggs made from their own cells, defanging biological clocks and the mothers who remind us of them.
It's pure alchemy, this, the ability to spin wool into silk, to turn skin tags or scabs, blisters or bunions into the raw material from which to create an actual, miraculous, living and breathing person, skin tags, scabs, blisters, bunions and all.