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Cover Story

In future, virgin births will be a possibility


Aweek ago, a London-based, Indian-origin scientist, Aarathi Prasad tripped global news wires with her projection that in the none-too-distant future, humans may procreate without sex, and entirely on their own. In her debut book, a work of scientific fact and hypothesis titled Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex, Prasad draws on ancient myths about 'virgin births', evolutionary biology, lab experiments and some creative thinking to suggest that a man or woman may one day be able to generate his or her own eggs and sperm through the manipulation of stem cells, use artificial chromosomes (Y, for women), and external wombs to produce a baby. In a word, automate. But, she assures us, this won't make sex redundant.

The prospect of a sexless future - surely that's a hard one to sell.

I really wasn't imagining a sexless future, just one that offered more choices. In many countries, infertility is on the rise. A great part of this rise is related to the later ages at which women (and men) are attempting to have their first child. Male infertility is on the rise too, and even though men can have children well into their older years, the health of these children can be affected. Also, new research shows that more miscarriages happen when the male partner is over 35, no matter what the age of the woman is. Of course, solutions must emerge from social interventions, like better provision of cheap childcare - but we may also need more choices, more options than our biology allows. Consider this - in nature, all the animals that now reproduce without sex originated from ancestors who used to need it. Assisted reproduction is not for everyone, not everyone will want or need it, but there are many who will.

How would self-reproduction alter the relationship between the sexes, assign new gender roles, revise family dynamics, perhaps even redress history?

It could change what families, as we know them, look like. Imagine, say, if the ability to produce sperm was no longer just the preserve of men, to produce eggs no longer the preserve of women, and then an artificial womb was created that meant both women and men could gestate a child independent of the human body. Now bear in mind that there is active research into all of these areas. The research is being conducted with a view to developing therapies for young people who had cancer, or malformed wombs, or early menopause, those with malfunctioning sperm or who have repeated miscarriages - but remember that egg donation too started as a therapy specifically for a young woman who had survived cancer and is now in general use, and in great demand. Although an artificial womb has already been developed for sharks and something similar was tested on goat foetuses, it is hard to say when one will be produced that humans could use, but research is ongoing. The generation of sperm and eggs from bone marrow or ovarian stem cells could be in clinical use within 15 to 20 years, plus, transplantation of frozen ovarian tissue has already proven a success. One of the things this would mean is that women would be able to start having babies well past what is currently our reproductive sell-by date (sterility begins at around 42 years in many women).
If this were the case, it would be something of an equaliser for us;we would have to make less tough decisions about when to start a family. And of course technologies like this would also enable gay and lesbian couples to become the genetic parents of their children - this is something that has never before been possible. They would also make the use (or abuse) of paid surrogates and the trade in 'donated' eggs redundant - or even make such commercialisation of eggs and women an even less ethical option. But the question of when things like this will happen is not just one for science. They may be scientifically possible, but they will need ethical and policy approval too - in the UK artificial reproduction technologies are very highly regulated.

You refer to parthenogenesis (development of an egg without fertilisation ) in some animal species;this helps lay the groundwork for the sort of self-procreation we may soon encounter in humans. Under what circumstances would this occur, if at all it did, in humans?

Natural parthenogenesis is impossible in humans. There is a genetic mechanism whereby some genes inherited from a mother are 'locked', unreadable - while the same genes in the father's DNA are unlocked, and readable - and this means that to create a child with access to a full set of genes, for an embryo to be able to read the full instruction manual, it needs both mother and father. All mammals, as far as we know, do need both father and mother.
We now know, however, exactly what and where these unreadable genes in both sets of DNA are. How to reverse the locks on them is also now understood - so much so that a few years ago, a group of Japanese scientists were able to reprogramme eggs to produce the first mouse in history who had two mothers, and no father.

Unlike instances in the past, when ideas that went against the grain of popular religion or politics (often one and the same), were met with rebuke and even censorship, what sort of climate does science inhabit today? What sort of reprisals would a work such as this encounter?

These attitudes have not gone away, though they may be in a minority, though a very vocal, sometimes powerful minority. The same reprisals and objections are repeated now, voices, usually religious voices, reminding us that such things are not natural. Every new technology comes up against this - and probably none touch such a nerve, or seem so sacred and essential to our humanness as reproductive technologies. But remember that the medical interventions that keep us alive are not natural either, like pacemakers, incubators, and lab-made insulin. In 1978, there was an outcry over IVF. Once they have a wider benefit to us, people tend to stop objecting.

Your forecast for auto-procreation rests on the evidence that we can harvest healthy eggs and sperm from our own stem cells, manufacture required chromosomes, mechanically fertilise our eggs and incubate our embryos in external artificial wombs. All this bears out hypothetically, what sort of regulations stand in the way of testing?

One of the experimental restrictions in the UK is that embryos used in studies can only be kept growing for 14 days, because after 14 days basically the beginnings of the nervous system, the brain appears. This makes it hard currently to test certain things, like whether an embryo is able to implant an artificial womb because in an actual womb implantation happens after 14 days. This restriction may change though, because it is an obstacle to several lines of research that involve stem cell work, for example research into Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. But that is a regulation that affects how experiments are done. Medical regulations exist to protect the health and the safety of people. That means that unless we can be certain that any baby born through such procedures is healthy, none of this will ever be possible. And this is as it should be. There are many challenges, this is not easy science, and there is a lot that can go wrong and the bottom line is we are talking about the life and the health of babies here. But if you don't like a challenge, don't become a scientist - this will all take time and checking and re-checking and ethical approval like any medical intervention, before it would be possible to use in any clinic.

Offspring conceived of one individual would inherit a single set of genes - the ultimate form of inbreeding. On a large scale, could this eventually reap a genetic monoculture?

It would not reap a monoculture because there is some diversity in eggs, the DNA in each egg a woman carries is shuffled somewhat, that is why two siblings can look so different. What happens in animals that have natural virgin births is a certain amount of what is known as genetic purging. You see this in closely related communities that intermarry too. After a certain amount of time, any child who has seriously detrimental genetic flaws will be miscarried or will not survive to an age where they would be able to have children themselves. That means that really bad defects will be knocked out of the gene pool. Only mild ones will be maintained, and those should not be pernicious. But regardless, my point was that it could be technologically possible. In reality I don't see this being adopted at all. In my opinion, you'd have to be pretty maverick or extraordinarily narcissistic (or have absolutely no other choice, which will almost never be the case!) to want to reproduce using only your own DNA. Sometime maybe someone will try it. But it certainly wouldn't be large scale.

Despite the jaws it has caused to drop your idea is not entirely out of line with the baseline of evolution, which supports the adaption of species to new and changing environments. So what, do you reckon, the fuss is


I think many of us believe that the way things are now, they always were, and they always will be. Of course they are not. Not biologically;biologically we have always been in flux or we would still be primordial soup. We are the product of animals that adapted to changing environments and needs. In our digital age, an age of equality (we would like to think) between the sexes, our needs are changing faster than our biology. That is true. But we can still adapt, if not naturally, then through technology.

You've cited research that proves some women are able to influence the sex of their child. In India, with its high female foeticide rate, this fact carries added weight. Do you suppose a climate hostile to women would, in the long run, genetically predispose selection in favour of the male sex?

No, a hostile social climate would not have a genetic effect;what I was describing has to do with an immune response. In pregnancy, a woman's immune system is required to protect her against the baby and the father's proteins it contains, which are foreign to her body, and it is required to protect her and her baby against infections - the whole thing is a difficult, though remarkable, balancing act. What we are seeing in the ratio change already in India, where male to female births are not as close to 50/50 as they should be, is explained by conscious decisions by the parent or parents, not by their immune systems or their genetics. What the research I described demonstrates is that some mothers might have
a small indirect influence on the sex of the child, but whether you have a girl or a boy is still absolutely determined by which sperm fertilises the egg. Eggs only carry X chromosomes. If any egg is going to develop into a boy it is the father who is required to fertilise it with a sperm that is carrying a Y chromosome.

You refer to the Paradox of Sex. What is it?

It's an idea in biology, basically saying that since a whole animal can in theory be built from an egg without sperm, sex is a high-risk undertaking for females and yet it is still an incredibly popular reproductive strategy in nature - though by no means the only one. The disadvantages of sex include transmissible diseases;risk of internal injury;the necessity of having to have a partner to reproduce (this carries another risk that an animal may never have an opportunity to pass its DNA on, should she not find a partner;it also means that when a female does reproduce through sex, her DNA in each of her offspring is diluted by one half); etc.

Of all the virgin births you've uncovered in myth, which intrigues you most?

I think (it would be the one about) the ancient Egyptian queen Mautmes, just because the description of how she became pregnant sounds remarkably similar to the immaculate conception story (the Virgin Mary becoming pregnant with Jesus), but one it massively predates. Basically, the queen was visited by the ibis-headed Thoth, the messenger of the gods, who informed her that she would bear a son, though she was a virgin. She was escorted by the holy spirit Kneph to a cross that symbolised life, through which she was impregnated by touching it to her lips.

Reader's opinion (2)

Yukteshwar BaranwalSep 4th, 2012 at 17:33 PM

There will be an another version of Generation Gap...

mallikarjuna pSep 3rd, 2012 at 15:43 PM

superb,the news this article clarifies a bit on,kind of a miracle and must be given an unbiased thought.We try n resistnew changes which may impede a comfortable course of our life ,confining the thoughts to narrow limits and try n make the mind to be used to such limitations as being only right

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