Mammal Embryos Can Develop in Space, New Study Finds

April 21, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Two-cell mouse embryos, four hours before launch.
Photo credit: Institute of Zoology, CAS

It's a first!

A new experiment shows that mammal embryos can develop completely in space. Chinese researchers have been carrying out a series of experiments onboard their microgravity SJ-10 satellite, which launched earlier this month.

Researchers loaded 6000 mouse embryos into what China Daily refers to as “a self-sufficient, enclosed chamber, the same size of a microwave oven” before the satellite was launched as part of a test to see whether the embryos would be able to develop in space. Inside the chamber, the embryos were provided with nutrients, as well as a microscopic camera to capture images of the developing embryos at four-hour intervals.

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80 hours after the launch of the SJ-10 satellite, the images were sent back to Earth where they showed that the two-celled embryos had successfully grown into fully developed blastocysts, structures of about 200 cells that contain the beginnings of the placenta and the fetus.

Mouse blastocysts developing in space

The mouse embryos developed into blastocysts 80 hours after launch. Photo credit: Institute of Zoology, CAS

"The human race may still have a long way to go before we can colonize the 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," principal researcher Duan Enkui, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told China Daily.

The embryos are currently still onboard the satellite and will be returning to Earth over the next couple of days. The researchers will then sample and analyze the development of the embryos, looking for any differences that might have occurred in space compared to normal development here on Earth.

"Now, we finally proved that the most crucial step in our reproduction — the early embryo development — is possible in the outer space," Enkui said.

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