New Reproductive Strategies that Can Change the Family Experience

New Reproductive Strategies

Same sex marriage, transgender people, gender-neutral restrooms –these and other developments have been part of our changing society over the past several decades (read more about it here). There have been some bumps along the way, but generally people, especially in the Millennial Generation in urban areas, are adjusting in pace with our rapidly evolving culture. But, what’s coming over the horizon? Maybe you’re thinking cloning for reproduction. That’s certainly possible, as are other techniques including multi-parent parenting (and I mean multiple biological parents).

That may sound like science fiction, but reproductive technology has been  playing a role in our societal changes. The first ‘test tube baby’ in the late 1970s was merely an icebreaker. Medically speaking, ‘test tube baby’ means in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF has enabled many couples to have children who would otherwise be infertile, but it hasn’t modified the human experience in any major way.

More recently, however, came the three-parent baby. Such children have genetic material from a father and a mother located in their human chromosomes, just like everyone else. But, they also have a second mother who supplies their cells’ mitochondria. These are energy organelles, like little power plants within the cells, but they have their own DNA and genetic history. Potentially, this could lead to a family structure involving two biological mothers, but the procedure is useful only in cases when the intended mother has a very rare genetic disorder involving the mitochondria.

Interestingly, new reproductive technologies are on the horizon. You may have heard of cloning. That’s just one such technology. The standard approach to cloning a blastula –a kind of early embryo– is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). That’s a mouthful, but here’s what it means: DNA is taken from a body cell of the organism that you want to clone –this could be a skin cell, a liver cell, or nearly any kind of cell– and putting that DNA into an egg cell from a female whose own DNA has been removed. You then give a jolt of electricity to stimulate the egg cell that contains the replaced DNA and the cell divides, producing an embryo.

Our society is considering human cloning mostly for creating therapies for various diseases. An early embryo, or blastula, consists of stem cells. These are the cells that can develop into many different types of body tissues, so the technology is called “therapeutic cloning”. Reproductive cloning is a less popular idea, and it would mean creating embryos for the sake of making babies.

What’s still more fascinating is that SCNT is not the only pathway to human cloning. Normally, human reproduction begins when an egg cell is ‘reprogramed’ as a result of fertilization by a sperm cell.  The new cell is set on a pathway to form a new person and can no longer be reprogrammed. SCNT is a way to produce a similar result using an egg cell and a body cell, rather than an egg cell and a sperm cell.

However, new research shows that there are other pathways to reprogramming after the process of forming an embryo has begun. This means that it should be possible to make a clone through other cell combinations. These could include a body cell and a sperm cell, two sperm cells, or even three different cells, or just one. Since each cell could be contributed by a different parent, the future may include children with all sorts of combinations of parenting combinations! There could be two fathers, two mothers, more than two parents, or even just one. Or, there could be still more exotic sounding combinations… Time will tell.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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