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The science of a sexless future

A new book by Indian-origin geneticist Aarathi Prasad explores alternative forms of conception and reproduction.

mumbai Updated: May 27, 2012 01:26 IST
Aarefa Johari

In 2004, researchers experimenting with mice in Japan managed to fuse two ovarian eggs and trigger the growth of an embryo, which was then implanted in the uterus of an adult female mouse.

The embryo eventually grew into a healthy female mouse, named Kaguya, the first animal to be born of two mothers.

At just over a year old, a still-healthy Kaguya mated with a male and gave birth to a litter of baby mice.

Researchers believe it would be possible to do this with human ovarian eggs, allowing men and women to have children independently of each other. Also on the anvil are artificial chromosomes made in laboratories and silicone wombs for men.

This is the future of human reproduction as explored by London-based biologist and geneticist Aarathi Prasad in her new book, Like a Virgin: The Science of a Sexless Future, to be published in the UK in July and in India in August.

“Today, educated women are more likely to delay having children in order to focus on their careers. New methods of conception could give them the choice of having babies at a later age or even after menopause,” says Prasad, 36, who was in Mumbai this past week on a pre-release tour for her book.

Born in London, Prasad grew up in the West Indies and returned to the UK to finish school, college and a PhD in cancer genetics at Imperial College.

After a few years of laboratory cancer research at that college, she moved to the field of science communication, writing for newspapers and magazines about the latest findings in biology and genetics research, presenting three Discovery Channel documentaries on health, and working with the British government to help them interpret research on health policies.

So what prompted her interest in alternative reproduction? Prasad puts it down to single parenthood.

“I always wanted a large family,” she says. After becoming a single mother to her 10-year-old girl, she became more interested in research on alternative forms of conception and the idea of ‘virgin’ births, where females fertilise their eggs and conceive offspring without any contact with sperm.

“Virgin births have already been recorded in some large animals,” says Prasad, whose book describes the 2001 case of a female bonnethead shark who was raised in captivity in a US zoo, never encountered a male shark and yet, as a mature adult, gave birth to a normal female pup. Similar cases of virgin births have been recorded over the past decade among blacktip sharks in the US and Komodo dragons in the UK. None of the offspring had any genetic material from a male.

While these were natural virgin births, says Prasad, in the 1980s, scientists tried to stimulate such births among mice in a laboratory, but failed.

Then, in 2004, researchers at Japan’s Tokyo University of Agriculture finally managed to combine the DNA from two ovarian eggs, trigger the growth of an embryo and thus spawn the female mouse Kaguya, the first animal born of two mothers.

“Humans and mice have the same genetic structure, so if this is possible in mice, it is possible in humans,” says Prasad, adding that without DNA from sperm, however, it would only be possible to create girl children, since only sperm contain the XY chromosome that results in male offspring.

Meanwhile, says Prasad, scientists have already succeeded in creating, in a laboratory, eggs and sperm from human bone-marrow stem cells.

“In 10 or 15 years, this technology might be ready for use in clinics, helping people create eggs and sperm containing their own genes instead of using those from a donor,” she says.

With global rates of infertility growing, Prasad believes that such research into alternative forms of reproduction could open up new avenues for men and women by the end of this century. “It could change the way babies are made.”

[Like a Virgin: The Science of a Sexless Future (Penguin, 2012) will be available in bookstores in August]