Scientists Make Sperm From Stem Cells, Media Fears "Petri Dish" Babies

Scientists say they've created the first human sperm from stem cells, but, as several news outlets hasten to reassure us, that doesn't mean we'll soon be "producing human life in a dish."

The sperm, created by exposing stem cells to "a special cocktail of growth factors, nutrients and retinoic acid, a derivative of vitamin A," have a head and tail, a special combination of proteins needed for fertilization, 23 chromosomes, and the ability to swim — just like ordinary, ball-produced sperm. However, sperm biologist Allan Pacey (who obviously got his job by losing a game of MASH) is skeptical. He says,

The quality of the images is not of sufficiently high resolution and I would need more data. They are early sperm, but functional tests would be needed to know exactly what has been achieved.

But the most obvious "functional test," using the sperm to fertilize an egg, is exactly what journalists and scientists alike assure us will not happen. Apparently identifying a deep-seated fear triggered by this research, four different news outlets report that the sperm breakthrough doesn't mean scientists will soon be creating human beings in a "dish." EurekAlert quotes lead researcher Karim Nayernia, who says,

While we can understand that some people may have concerns, this does not mean that humans can be produced 'in a dish' and we have no intention of doing this. This work is a way of investigating why some people are infertile and the reasons behind it. If we have a better understanding of what's going on it could lead to new ways of treating infertility.

Despite Nayernia's assurances that the sperm will be used to study male infertility and not to create a race of dish-people (and the fact that UK law prohibits the created sperm from being used in actual fertility treatments), critics are concerned. Josephine Quintavalle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics says,

This is an example of immoral madness. Perfectly viable human embryos have been destroyed in order to create sperm over which there will be huge questions of their healthiness and viability.

It's taking one life in order to perhaps create another. I'm very much in favour of curing infertility but I don't think you can do whatever you like.

The idea that curing male infertility is okay but producing embryos "in a dish" is not may speak to an anxiety underlying much of the coverage of this breakthrough: what if artificial sperm meant women could reproduce without men? Though they are quick to quote Nayernia's "dish" reassurances, none of the articles mentioned this anxiety explicitly, perhaps because of a lucky loophole: at this point, only male stem cells can be used to create workable sperm. So men are safe, for now. But as soon as we figure out how to make sperm from our own lady cells, we're going to send all the men to Siberia and use "dishes" to create what we really want — babies!

We expected Slate's William Saletan to be all over this issue, and he probably will be. But today his column deals with a more important question: "Does God want you to masturbate?" The answer: hell yeah, but only because it improves men's "sperm quality" — perhaps protecting them from stem-cell-induced obsolescence.

Scientists Create Human Sperm from Stem Cells [Time]
Scientists Claim Sperm 'First' [BBC]
Human Sperm Created From Embryonic Stem Cells [EurekAlert]
Scientists Claim Breakthrough In Growing Human Sperm From Stem Cells [Guardian]
Experts Query Sperm Creation Claim [Mirror]
Wank Thyself [Slate]