Baby mice produced from 2 moms, no dad

Chinese researchers using gene editing and stem cell technology say they've bred healthy mice using two mothers — with no male mouse.

Chinese researchers also produced mice from 2 dads, but those babies survived only a couple of days

This adult mouse was born to two mothers, and was healthy enough to have offspring of her own, after Chinese researchers used stem cell and gene editing technology. (Leyun Wang)

Chinese researchers using gene editing and stem cell technology say they've bred healthy mice using two mothers — with no male mouse.

The baby mice were healthy and developed well enough to go on to have normal offspring of their own.

In experiments designed to explore what makes it so difficult for some animals to reproduce with same-sex parents, the researchers said mice from two fathers were also born, but survived for only a couple of days.

The results, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell on Thursday, suggest some barriers to same-sex reproduction can be overcome with stem cells and targeted gene editing. But experts said there was no prospect of it being translated soon into humans so same-sex couples can reproduce.

"To consider exploring similar technology for human application in the near future is implausible," said Dusko Ilic, a stem cell specialist at King's College London who was asked to comment on the Chinese results.

"The risk of severe abnormalities is too high, and it would take years of research in various animal models to fully understand how this could be done safely."

Some reptiles, amphibians and fish can reproduce with one parent, but it is challenging for mammals to do the same even with the help of fertilization technology.

The researchers, based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that in mammals, because certain maternal or paternal genes are shut off during germ line (egg and sperm) development by a mechanism called genomic imprinting, offspring that don't get genetic material from both a mother and father might be developmentally abnormal or might not be viable.

Stem cells with fewer chromosomes

To create mice with two moms, a team of scientists led by Qi Zhou used haploid embryonic stem cells (ESCs), which contain half the normal number of chromosomes and DNA from only one parent.

This mouse pup was born to two fathers, but did not survive to adulthood. (Leyun Wang)

Using gene editing techniques, the scientists deleted three imprinting regions of the genome from haploid ESCs containing a female parent's DNA and injected them into eggs from another female mouse. This work produced 29 live mice from 210 embryos. The mice were normal, lived to adulthood and went on to have babies.

Making mice from two fathers was more complicated, the researchers said, and involved modifying haploid ESCs containing only a male parent's DNA to delete seven key imprinted regions.

The edited haploid ESCs were then injected — along with sperm from another male mouse — into an egg cell that had its nucleus, and therefore its female genetic material, removed. This created embryos containing only genomic DNA from the two males, and these embryos were then transferred to surrogate mothers. These pups survived for only 48 hours after birth.

"This research shows us what's possible," said Wei Li, who co-led the work.

The scientists said there are still obstacles to using such methods in other mammals, including identifying which imprinted genes need to be deleted. They said, however, that they hoped to explore the techniques in other research animals in the future.

Azim Surani, a germline and epigenomics specialist at Britain's Cambridge University, said the work was impressive, but the "extensive genetic manipulation" involved meant it is not a plausible way to create human babies from same-sex parents.