An anonymous reader quotes the ScienceAlert post: In a monumental leap in stem cell research, an experiment led by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK has developed a living mouse embryo model with quivering heart tissue and rudimentary brain tissue. The research builds on a recent success by a team that includes some of the same scientists who pushed the boundaries of simulating embryonic development in mice using stem cells never before seen inside a mouse womb. In the past, embryology researchers mainly focused on plucking selected stem cells from parts of the embryo that would grow into an animal and encouraging them to multiply in glass dishes full of specially selected nutrients. Over the years, this method has resulted in clumps of cells containing the basic original structures of the gut and folds of tissue called the neural tube. What the so-called “gastruloid” model contains in form, however, it lacks in function. Many of the features expected to develop with these tissues are missing, making it difficult to draw parallels between the model and a real growing embryo. There are ways to stimulate the appearance of brain-like structures, as well as the functioning of cardiac tissue and the more complex intestinal tube. However, workarounds based on relatively simple hormone soups can only go so far.

By mixing stem cells representing these three main groups of tissues and improving on previous methods of developing them in vitro (that is, in a dish) into embryos, the team found that their model could develop on its own to develop a nervous system equivalent to a natural mouse embryo after 8, 5 days after conception. The step is small, equivalent to just one day of development of an unborn mouse. But a lot can happen in those 24 hours of pregnancy. The synthetic embryo also contained basic heart tissue that produced beats and gut rudiments, as well as the beginnings of structures that in the real embryo could build parts of the skeleton, muscles, and other tissues under the skin. By itself, the model will not continue to develop into something like a thriving mouse. Science is nowhere near capable of producing anything as advanced as a functional organ from just stem cells, let alone a whole animal. Although the resemblance is quite significant in research, it is – so to speak – only skin deep, devoid of the signals that would see it transform into the fully formed organism it models. Having a tissue collection that accurately reflects development outside the body gives researchers the ability to not only observe but also ethically test genetic changes that can help improve our understanding of how our bodies grow. The findings appear in a study published in the journal Nature.

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