Real Life or Science Fiction

How does science translate from the real world to the fictional world? In hard science fiction, the scientific elements of the story stay as close to reality as possible. The more speculative the science, the less “hard” the science fiction. Imagine that science we know is on one end of a sliding scale, we’ll call it reality. And we’ll place the far-fetched speculative science of a speculative fiction / science fantasy story on the other end. Sometimes what started as science fantasy slides toward science reality. That’s what happened to the rocket ships of Golden Age Science fiction. In my series, the Fellowship Dystopia, parthenogenesis is used to create female children. But is it Real Life or Science Fiction?

Illustration of Real Life or Science Fiction depicts two test tubes holding fetuses curled up inside, behind them appears to be images of two drops of magnified cells

Real Life Parthenogenesis

Parthenogenesis was discovered in real life by Charles Bonnet a Swiss naturalist, lawyer, and philosophical writer in the 18th century when he observed asexual reproduction in aphids. Parthenogenesis is a method in which a new individual develops from an egg (ovum) without fertilization from a sperm. This is a natural phenomenon in some animals like bees, wasps, ants, fish, lizards, and in some plants. 

In 1913, Jacques Loeb wrote Artificial Parthenogenesis. In it he discusses the history of spontaneous parthenogenesis (no human intervention) that helped lead to studies in artificial parthenogenesis including his own. A German born American pysiologist and biologist, Loeb experimented on unfertilized sea urchins (Arbacia) eggs.

Real Life Cloning

In 1952, Robert Briggs and Thomas King used nuclear transfer technology to clone tadpoles from adult frog donor cells. This same technique was used to clone Dolly the Sheep, born in 1996. 

Real Life External Uterus

Image shows a schematic of the way amniotic fluid enters a pump then filters before entering the biobag with the lamb in it. It also shows schematically how they attached the umbilical cord to and ran the lambs blood through an oxygenator and gave meds and fluids.Below the schematics are photographs of the lamb inside a clear plastic biobag one with pink skinned lamb the other with the lamb fully covered in lamb's wool ready for birth.This real life or fiction looks like fiction but is real life.

Researchers at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital announced they had created a biobag, an external uterine system used to support an extremely premature lamb in 2017. Their hope is to one day support extremely premature human babies until their lungs and organs are more developed.

Fictional Parthenogenesis

Cover of My Soul to Keep is a dark blue background with a lighter blue Fellowship Shield. Ontop of the shield is a two-D yellow and orange image of the Washington monument. At the point of the shield and the base of the monument the silhouette of a woman in a skirt walks toward the camera

In My Soul to Keep, book one of the Fellowship Dystopia, the reader learns about a pair of scientists who used parthenogenesis to create a human embryo from two eggs. They implant the embryo into a woman’s uterus in 1944. Under the care of the brilliant Dr. Locke and his assistant, Dr. Gallaway, embryo grew into a fetus, and after a normal pregnancy, a girl child was born. One success quickly became many successes.

The doctors claimed their research was to filter out genetic defects. They believed that unlike the better baby contests looking for perfect children, they would create a world where every child born would be genetically perfect. 

When the subjects of their research turned out to have a high propensity for out-of-control behaviors during their brief lives, the scientists discovered ways to influence those behaviors. Under their influence, they created a class of female assassins they called Azrael, the Angels of Death.

By the end of My Soul to Keep, the scientists have built an enormous experiment in ectogenesis…growing a fetus in an external, mechanical womb. Lots of mechanical wombs.

If I Should Die

cover of  the science fiction book If I Should die has a dark green background with a purplish Fellowship shield on it. On top of the shield is a two-D image of the Statute of Liberty in two tones of light green, at the point of the shield and the statue's base is the silhouette of a woman holding a gun and running toward the camera--

In If I Should Die, the second book of the Fellowship Dystopia, the reader gets to take a tour of the laboratory with the characters and learn a little more about fictional parthenogenesis. Of course, there’s more going on than the characters see…at least at first.

Of course, all the science in the Fellowship Dystopia is speculative or so-called science fantasy. Or is it? The slider is edging back toward the reality side. 

Real Life Parthenogenesis Impossible

In the mid-1980s, researchers attempted parthenogenesis in mice. They combined genetic material from two different female eggs, and created embryos they then implanted into a surrogate mouse. The implantation was successful, and the pregnancy seemed successful, but none of the embryos survived. Later experiments discover a phenomenon called genomic imprinting. They describe this imprinting as a kind of genetic tag in egg and sperm that are dormant, or shut off, until sperm and egg meet. This tag allows for normal development of the fetus.

When this imprinting process goes awry, kids can end up with inactive gene regions that cause miscarriages, developmental defects and cancer.”

Discover Magazine

Later experiments found that there are between 100 and 200 genetic tags. Researchers concluded that genetic imprinting prohibited parthenogenesis in mammals. 

Real Life Parthenogenesis Take 2

Then in 2004, Tomohiro Kono and colleagues at the Tokyo University of Agriculture in Tokyo, Japan, manipulated the nucleus of eggs from female mice, and created 457 reconstructed eggs. Two live mice were born. 

Kono and his colleagues hope that this achievement will help make animal cloning more efficient. 

In 2018, Wei Li and his team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing used CRISPER the gene editing technique and produced healthy mice from two moms.

The researchers created embryos with two genetic mothers (bi-maternal) and implanted them into surrogate mice. The offspring were born, lived to adulthood, and produced their own pups. Although Li’s first bi-maternal mice had growth defects, he and his team deleted another tag in the mothers’ genes, which allowed the bi-maternal offspring to experience normal growth. 

Li and his team also experimented with creating embryos from two male mice. Only two and a half percent of the embryos made it to term and less than half of one percent were born live. They didn’t make it to adulthood. 

Real Life or Science Fiction

While the science in the Fellowship Dystopia doesn’t exist today, it was fun to extrapolate the possibilities of what that might have looked like in an alternate history. If you haven’t read My Soul to Keep, book one of the Fellowship Dystopia, get caught up! If I Should Die, the second book in the Fellowship Dystopia series, goes on preorder starting May first.

Some speculate that some day real life science will use parthenogenesis to enable same-sex couples to have children genetically related to both parents. No worries. The ability to produce multiple live births from manipulated human ova or sperm is miles from any near future possibility. But what about a hundred years from now? Could we be producing genetically Better Babies? Should we?

Suppose you live in the future when parthenogenesis creates viable human offspring, would you opt for a son or daughter who’s your genetic duplicate?

Image Credit

Image of biobag by Partridge, Emily A., et. al, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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