On September 24, the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23 and Me was granted patent no. 8543339, covering the selection of traits in offspring by genotyping eggs and sperm. (“Gamete donor selection based on genetic calculations.”) An analysis of the ethical issues the patent raises is published today in Genetics in Medicine. (Coincidentally, a co-author of the paper was so critical of a recent DNA Science blog post that comments had to be cut off. Small world.)
I’d started thinking about today’s post a few weeks ago, when a prominent science writer posted on a listserv “What was the CEO of AAAS thinking?” and then quoted Alan I. Leshner telling the New York Times: “K-12 students need to know the nature of science, how scientists work and the domains and limits of science. Science can’t tell you about God. Or when life begins.”
“Um…when life begins is a pretty basic idea in biology,” commented the originator of the compelling listserv thread that followed. Actually, no.
I’m the author of an intro college biology textbook called “Life,” my having nabbed that title before Keith Richards did. Life science textbooks from traditional publishers (I’m with McGraw-Hill) don’t explicitly state when life begins, because that is a question not only of biology, but of philosophy, politics, psychology, religion, technology, and emotions. Rather, textbooks list the characteristics of life, leaving interpretation to the reader. But I can see where the idea comes from that textbooks define life as beginning at conception. Consider a report from the Association of Pro-life Physicians. After a 5-point list of life’s characteristics from “a scientific textbook,” this group’s analysis concludes with “According to this elementary definition of life, life begins at fertilization, when a sperm unites with an oocyte.” Sneaky.
Being a biologist, a textbook author, and a mother, I’ve thought a great deal about the question of when a human life begins. So here are my selections of times at which a biologist might argue a human organism is alive. I’ll save my preference for the end.
1. Life is a continuum. Gametes (sperm and oocyte) link generations.
2. The germline. As oocytes and sperm form, their imprints – epigenetic changes from the parents’ genomes – are lifted.
3. The fertilized ovum. Of the hundreds of sperm surviving the swim upstream to the oocyte, one jettisons its tail and nuzzles inside the much larger cell, which obligingly becomes an ovum, completing its own meisosis. A fertilized ovum = conception.
4. Pronuclei merge, within 12 hours. After fertilization, the packets of DNA from male and female — the pronuclei — approach, merge, and the intermingling chromosomes pair and part, as the first mitotic division looms. A new human genome forms. Following that first division, some genes from the new genome are accessed to make proteins, but maternal transcripts still dominate development.
5. Cleavage. Divisions ensue. The cells of an 8-celled embryo (day 3) have not yet committed to becoming part of the embryo “proper” (one with layers) or the supportive membranes. Such a cell can still, on its own, develop. An 8-celled embryo whose cells are teased apart could lead to an octomom situation.
6. Day 5. The new genome takes over as maternal transcripts are depleted. The inner cell mass (icm) separates from the hollow ball of cells and takes up residence on the interior surface. It will become the embryo proper, distinguishing itself from the remaining part of the ball fated to become the extra-embryonic membranes. The icm is what all the fuss about human embryonic stem (hES) cells is about — the stem cells aren’t the icm cells, but are cultured from them.
7. End of the first week. The embryo implants in the uterine lining.
8. Day 16. The gastrula. Tissue layers form, first the ectoderm and endoderm, then the sandwich filling, the mesoderm. Each layer gives rise to specific body parts.
9. Day 14. The primitive streak forms, classically the first sign of a nervous system and when some nations set the deadline for no longer using human embryos in experiments.
10. Day 18. The heart beats.
11. Day 28. The neural tube closes, within which the notochord, preliminary to the spinal cord, will form, while the bulge at the top will come to house the brain. If the tube doesn’t close completely, a neural tube defect (anencephaly, spina bifida, and a few others) results.
12. End of week 8. The embryo becomes a fetus, all structures present in rudimentary form.
13. Week 14 or thereabouts. “Quickening,” the flutter a woman feels in her abdomen that will progress to squirms and kicks from within.
14. Week 22. A fetus has a chance of becoming a premature baby if delivered.
17. Acceptance into medical school. I don’t know where this came from, a joke about Jewish mothers, but in some circles it might now apply to acceptance into preschool. Or when one’s grown offspring leave home.
My answer? #14. The ability to survive outside the body of another sets a practical limit on defining when a sustainable human life begins.
Having a functional genome, tissue layers, a notochord, a beating heart … none of these matter if the organism cannot survive where humans survive. Technology has taken us to the ends of the prenatal spectrum, yet not provided too much for the middle, other than fetal surgeries for a handful of conditions. We can collect and select gametes, now thanks to patent no. 8543339. We collect and select very early embryos in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, allowing those without a specific disease to continue development. And although the gestational age at which a premature infant can survive has crept younger, it hasn’t by much, not since I starting thinking about these things back when I was a stage #16.
Until an artificial uterus becomes a reality, technology defines, for me, when a human life begins, rather than biology. Alternative views are welcome!