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Mice embryos can develop in space, Chinese scientists report

After traveling aboard a Chinese research satellite for the better part of the last two weeks, a batch of mouse embryos has reportedly begun showing signs of early-stage development in a microgravity environment.

According to China’s state-run media outlet CCTV, roughly 600 of the more than 6,000 embryos sent to space on April 6 have been under constant surveillance, with a high-resolution camera capturing and transmitting photographs of the sample every four hours. After just 80 hours spent in space, the photographs showed the embryos developing from a two-cell stage — an early embryonic stage — to a more notable cell differentiation stage called blastocyst.

China’s reported development is incredibly intriguing in two different ways. First, the successful initial growth of the mouse embryos marks the first time in history that mammalian embryos have been developed in a microgravity environment — i.e., outer space. Additionally, the development of the embryos showed marked similarities to the development of such cells taking place on Earth, albeit in an extremely short amount of time. In other words, it’s still entirely unclear if the embryos will, in fact, grow properly enough to produce fully functioning live mice.

“The human race may still have a long way to go before we can colonize 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,” the experiment’s principal researcher, Duan Enkui, tells China Daily. “Now, we finally proved that the most crucial step in our reproduction — the early embryo development — is possible in outer space.”

The scientists will now study the continued development of the embryos on Earth after the embryo-carrying capsule returned late Monday afternoon. Now that the embryos have reached the blastocyst stage, the researchers have frozen the cells to prevent any additional development. The frozen cells will now be shipped to Beijing, where their development will continue alongside several Earth-developed embryos. Enkui did point out that, in the future, the team could possibly keep the cells in space for a few days longer in hopes of producing an actual space-born mouse.

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