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The beautiful science of embryology

We can manipulate the cellular units of life as skilfully as a potter works clay

By Kate Womersley   April 2021
A computer simulation of a human embryo at six weeks Credit: Science Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo

A computer simulation of a human embryo at six weeks Credit: Science Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s a familiar story: the virile sperm fights its path through the hostile uterus to the passive female egg. After fertilisation, the resulting ball of cells is “totipotent,” with each unit equally capable of becoming any cell type in the placenta or foetus. Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, an embryologist from the University of Cambridge, affronted her field by claiming this was wrong: not just the sexist metaphors, but also the assumption that the first human cells are identical. Her experiments showed that cells lean towards a particular fate, and that an embryo’s symmetry is broken from its earliest moments.

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