If humans are to live anywhere that isn't Earth, we'll need to be able to reproduce elsewhere in space. Now, a series of experiments performed by Chinese researchers show that mammalian embryos can "develop completely" in orbit. China launched a microgravity satellite called SJ-10 into space on April 6, which was packed with a series of experiments. Some of the results are already being beamed back to Earth.
Aboard the satellite, researchers loaded 6000 mouse embryos in what China Daily refers to as "a self-sufficient, enclosed chamber, the same size of a microwave oven". Inside are the support systems required to provide the embryos with nutrients, as well as a microscope system and image sensors to capture pictures of the developing embryos every four hours.
The images beamed back to Earth since the satellite was launched show that over the course of 80 hours in space the initial two-cell embryos loaded into the satellite have grown into fully developed blastocysts. The term blastocyst is the name given to an embryo before it implants into the wall of the uterus.
The researchers claim that this is the first time that mammalian embryos have been shown to develop in space. Professor Duan Enkui, who led the experiment, explained to China Daily:
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. Now, we finally proved that the most crucial step in our reproduction — the early embryo development — is possible in the outer space.
The embryos are contained in a small module of the satellite that will return to Earth in the coming days. The samples will subsequently be analysed to investigate whether their development was any different in space compared to here on Earth. The results will prove fascinating, potentially shedding some light on whether or not humans can easily procreate in space.
Image by Chinese Academy of Sciences/China Daily