LONDON: The blueprint for life – DNA – has been altered in human embryos for the first time in the UK.
The team at the Francis Crick Institute are unravelling the mysteries of the earliest moments of life.
Understanding what happens after a sperm fertilises an egg could lead to ways of improving IVF or explain why some women miscarry.
The embryos were modified shortly after fertilisation and allowed to develop for seven days.
The researchers are exploring one of the most astounding of transformations.
We have all journeyed from a single fertilised egg to a human being – built from myriad different tissues ranging from bone to those needed to read this page.
The first few steps on that journey are as critical as they are poorly understood.
Breakthroughs in manipulating DNA have allowed the team at the Crick to turn off a gene – a genetic instruction – suspected to be of vital importance.
The easiest way of working out how something works is to remove it and see what happens.
So the researchers used the gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9 to scour the billions of letters of genetic code, find their genetic target and break the DNA to effectively disable it.
They were targeting a gene. You are unlikely to have heard of it, but OCT4 is a superstar in early embryo development.
Its complete role is not understood but it acts like an army general issuing commands to keep development on track.
The researchers used 41 embryos that had been donated by couples who no longer needed them for IVF.
After performing the genetic modification, the team could watch how the embryos developed without OCT4.