A mouse embryo has been grown in an artificial womb—humans could be next
“I do understand the difficulties. I understand. You are entering the domain of abortions,” says Hanna. However, he says he can rationalize such experiments because researchers already study five-day-old human embryos from IVF clinics, which are also destroyed in that process.
“So I would advocate growing it until day 40 and then disposing of it,” says Hanna. “Instead of getting tissue from abortions, let’s take a blastocyst and grow it.”
The research is part of an explosion of new techniques and ideas for studying early development. Today, in the same issue of Nature, two other research groups are reporting a leap forward in creating “artificial” human embryos.
Those teams managed to coax ordinary skin cells and stem cells to self-assemble into look-alike early human embryos they call “blastoids,” which they grew for about 10 days in the lab. Several kinds of artificial models of embryos have been described before, but those described today are among the most complete, because they possess the cells needed to form a placenta. That means they are a step closer to being viable human embryos that could develop further, even until birth.
Scientists say that they would never try to establish a pregnancy with artificial embryos—an act that would be forbidden today in most countries.
Instead, Hanna says, an obvious next step would be to add these embryo models to his system of spinning jars and see how much further they can develop. “It took six years of very intense work to get this system to where it is,” says Hanna. “We do have the goal to do it with synthetic embryos as well.”
For now, the artificial womb technology remains “complex and expensive,” says Martinez Arias. He does not believe many other labs will be able to use it, limiting its impact in the short term, and he is not in favor of growing human embryos this way: “It’s expensive and complicated, so we will have to see how useful it is.”
The mouse-in-a-jar technology needs other improvements, too, Hanna says. He was not able to grow the mice starting from a fertilized egg all the way to day 12. Instead, he collected 5-day-old embryos from pregnant mice and moved them into the incubator system, where they lived another week.
The issue is that currently, the mouse embryos develop correctly only if they can be attached to an actual mouse uterus, at least for a brief time. Hanna’s team is working on adapting the procedure so they can develop the mice entirely in vitro.
Hanna says he’s not interested in bringing mice to term inside the lab. His goal is to watch and manipulate early development. “I want to see how the program unfolds,” he says. “I have plenty to study.”
Long-term studies of live human embryos developing in the lab are currently banned under the so-called 14-day rule, a guideline (and a law in some countries) according to which embryologists have been forbidden to grow human embryos more than two weeks.
However, a key scientific organization, the International Society for Stem Cell Research, or ISSCR, has plans to recommend rescinding the prohibition and allowing some embryos to grow for longer.
Hanna says that means he could grow human embryos in his incubator—so long as Israeli ethics boards sign off, something he thinks they would do.
“Once the guidelines are updated, I can apply, and it will be approved. It’s a very important experiment,” says Hanna. “We need to see human embryos gastrulate and form organs and start perturbing it. The benefit of growing human embryos to week three, week four, week five is invaluable. I think those experiments should at least be considered. If we can get to an advanced human embryo, we can learn so much.”
Hanna says to make such experiments more acceptable, human embryos could be altered to limit their potential to develop fully. One possibility would be to install genetic mutations in a calcium channel so as to prevent the heart from ever beating.
I asked Hanna if he had sought the advice of ethicists or religious figures. He said he has not. Instead, he is awaiting the advice of his professional body and ethics clearance from his university.
“The ISSCR is my rabbi,” he says.
There may be unexpected practical applications of growing human embryos in jars. William Hurlbut, a doctor and bioethicist at Stanford University, says the system suggests to him a way to obtain primitive organs, like liver or pancreas cells, from first-trimester human embryos, which could then be grown further and used in transplant medicine. Hanna agrees this is a potential direction for the technology.
“The scientific frontier is moving from molecules and test tubes to living organisms,” says Hurlbut. “I don’t think that organ harvesting is so far-fetched. It could eventually get there. But it’s very fraught, because one person’s boundary is not another person’s boundary.”
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.
As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world.
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.
“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station.
Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges.
These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US.
Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today.
Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)
The emergent industrial metaverse
Annika Hauptvogel, head of technology and innovation management at Siemens, describes the industrial metaverse as “immersive, making users feel as if they’re in a real environment; collaborative in real time; open enough for different applications to seamlessly interact; and trusted by the individuals and businesses that participate”—far more than simply a digital world.
The industrial metaverse will revolutionize the way work is done, but it will also unlock significant new value for business and societies. By allowing businesses to model, prototype, and test dozens, hundreds, or millions of design iterations in real time and in an immersive, physics-based environment before committing physical and human resources to a project, industrial metaverse tools will usher in a new era of solving real-world problems digitally.
“The real world is very messy, noisy, and sometimes hard to really understand,” says Danny Lange, senior vice president of artificial intelligence at Unity Technologies, a leading platform for creating and growing real-time 3-D content. “The idea of the industrial metaverse is to create a cleaner connection between the real world and the virtual world, because the virtual world is so much easier and cheaper to work with.”
While real-life applications of the consumer metaverse are still developing, industrial metaverse use cases are purpose-driven, well aligned with real-world problems and business imperatives. The resource efficiencies enabled by industrial metaverse solutions may increase business competitiveness while also continually driving progress toward the sustainability, resilience, decarbonization, and dematerialization goals that are essential to human flourishing.
This report explores what it will take to create the industrial metaverse, its potential impacts on business and society, the challenges ahead, and innovative use cases that will shape the future. Its key findings are as follows:
• The industrial metaverse will bring together the digital and real worlds. It will enable a constant exchange of information, data, and decisions and empower industries to solve extraordinarily complex real-world problems digitally, changing how organizations operate and unlocking significant societal benefits.
• The digital twin is a core metaverse building block. These virtual models simulate real-world objects in detail. The next generation of digital twins will be photorealistic, physics-based, AI-enabled, and linked in metaverse ecosystems.
• The industrial metaverse will transform every industry. Currently existing digital twins illustrate the power and potential of the industrial metaverse to revolutionize design and engineering, testing, operations, and training.
The Download: China’s retro AI photos, and experts’ AI fears
Across social media, a number of creators are generating nostalgic photographs of China with the help of AI. Even though these images get some details wrong, they are realistic enough to trick and impress many of their followers.
The pictures look sophisticated in terms of definition, sharpness, saturation, and color tone. Their realism is partly down to a recent major update of image-making artificial-intelligence program Midjourney that was released in mid-March, which is better not only at generating human hands but also at simulating various photography styles.
It’s still relatively easy, even for untrained eyes, to tell that the photos are generated by an AI. But for some creators, their experiments are more about trying to recall a specific era in time than trying to trick their audience. Read the full story.
Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
Read more of our reporting on AI-generated images:
+ These new tools let you see for yourself how biased AI image models are. Bias and stereotyping are still huge problems for systems like DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, despite companies’ attempts to fix it. Read the full story.