Artificial sperm swims forward

German scientists create mouse sperm from stem cells. People cheer. People freak.

Published July 11, 2006 5:12PM (EDT)

Whoa. Life through artificial sperm.

Here's how it happened: A group of German scientists harvested some stem cells from a mouse embryo, isolated the stem cells that were developing into spermatogonial (early stage) sperm and nudged them to grow into full-fledged sperm cells in the lab. They then injected the fully grown sperm into mouse eggs and implanted the embryos into mouse mothers. Seven mouse babies resulted; they showed abnormal growth patterns and had trouble breathing, but six of them lived to adulthood. It's the first instance of lab-grown sperm resulting in living offspring. The study is published in the journal Developmental Cell, and there's a story about it on the BBC's Web site.

Karim Nayernia, who who headed up the study, told the BBC, "For the first time we have created life using artificial sperm."

Yup, that's the kind of provocative statement that sounds like it could be followed up with a few sharp organ notes and a threatening "Bwa-ha-ha-ha!"

And sure enough, news of the study is getting a mixed reception. On the one hand, scientists argue that the development of working sperm from stem cells could help couples overcome male fertility problems down the road. Other scientists argue that the developmental problems faced by the resulting mice demonstrate that the science isn't yet solid enough to even begin to go there.

And then there are the ethical and philosophical dimensions of developments like this. Medical ethics researcher Anna Smajdor from Imperial College London told the BBC that she applauded the scientific breakthroughs of the work, but that "sperm and eggs play a unique role in our understanding of kinship and parenthood, and being able to create these cells in the laboratory will pose a serious conceptual challenge for our society."

No kidding. The notion that either sex could one day reproduce without the other is surely one of the most threatening out there. It's our most perverse and monstrous desire, something that gets flirted with in movies (see "Junior") and thrown around in often heated cultural debate (about sperm banks and single mothers by choice). To play with the idea imaginatively is to consider the ways it could be empowering and the ways in which it would likely tear apart the most basic fabric of human interaction at the seams.

News of a scientific breakthrough of this nature, even early science that is ostensibly directed toward helping couples who wouldn't otherwise be able to have offspring together, is enough to shake us all a little bit.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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