Did Jesus Have a Y Chromosome?

Hmm. Here’s a quote from an interesting story in The Independent by Steve Connor, the science editor:

Women might soon be able to produce sperm in a development that could allow lesbian couples to have their own biological daughters, according to a pioneering study published today.

Scientists are seeking ethical permission to produce synthetic sperm cells from a woman’s bone marrow tissue after showing that it possible to produce rudimentary sperm cells from male bone-marrow tissue.

The researchers said they had already produced early sperm cells from bone-marrow tissue taken from men. They believe the findings show that it may be possible to restore fertility to men who cannot naturally produce their own sperm.

But the results also raise the prospect of being able to take bone-marrow tissue from women and coaxing the stem cells within the female tissue to develop into sperm cells, said Professor Karim Nayernia of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Creating sperm from women would mean they would only be able to produce daughters because the Y chromosome of male sperm would still be needed to produce sons. The latest research brings the prospect of female-only conception a step closer.

So that means if Jesus had been “born of a virgin,” he’d actually be a girly-god, huh? So much for patriarchal monotheism!

The story is actually interesting to me because of all the talk of ethics in human reproduction today.

The story concludes with these paragraphs:

Whether the scientists will ever be able to develop the techniques to help real patients – male or female – will depend on future legislation that the Government is preparing as a replacement to the existing Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

A White Paper on genetics suggested that artificial gametes produced from the ordinary “somatic” tissue of the body may be banned from being used to fertilise human eggs by in vitro fertilisation.

Why would it be any less ethnical to create a child from a sperm produced this way than it is through “regular” in vitro fertilization? Personally, I think it’s borderline immoral to bring children into the world right now anyway, with the population fast approaching 6,525,170,264 and quite a bit of uncertainty about whether food and water supplies can keep up with future population growth, particularly as the life span is getting longer (at least in most industrialized nations), and global warming will be destroying human habitat (at least in most non-industrialized nations).


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. I find it funny to thin of the inevitable shocks from some men who'll think it's one step towards the extinction of men, having of course not worked out the cost of having this done. I guess if they do ban it in humans the researchers will just perfect it with a close animal species and then when the law gets relaxed they'll transfer it straight over anyway.

  2. A couple of typos first: " 6,525,170,26" is lacking a digit and "any less ethnical" would be an interesting argument.

    I think an ethical consideration is whether or not someone incapable of producing sperm should pass on their genetic material, which might be causing their infertility. Also using ordinary tissue increases the "degree" of tampering with nature.

    I'm sure where I personally draw the line, but this is closing in on the line where I, as supreme judge of ethics, wouldn't allow it for general use. It's too close to a world where humans can only reproduce artificially for my comfort, but I'd allow research.

  3. Bjornar, this is a million miles from "world where humans can only reproduce artificially". I think you're falling for the slippery slope fallacy there, and denying sterile people new reproductive options because it may lead (in liek a zillion years!) to something more sinister.

    Also, the worry that if this is allowed, every human will someday be female sounds a bit silly. I think a lot of girls would miss having men around.. I know I would :o) Just think of the sadness the (small in comparison) gender imbalance in china is going to cause for a lot of virgins/bachelors in 15-20 years.

  4. Wow, that's really interesting! I hope it works. More reproductive options are a good thing, and I count allowing more types of couples the option of raising a child with both of their genes a good thing too. It seems somewhat orthogonal to the question of overpopulation, especially when compared to the ease and frequency of, er, traditional reproduction methods :p

    It makes me sad to think that people are going to make an ethical issue of this. Is there a single argument against this that doesn't boil down to either "differences frighten me" or "the only justification for the existence of people who happen to be male is their reproductive utility"? (Is the latter a special case of the former? :p)

  5. I don't think this technology (if that's the right word) should be made into an ethical issue either.

    My own choice not to have children has nothing to do wtih making a moral choice. I just never had an ounce of desire to become a mother.

    Oh, and isn't it funny that this statement:

    “the only justification for the existence of people who happen to be male is their reproductive utility”?

    is so similar to this statement, that fits right into the beliefs of many religious extremists, who would never come out and say this but who support this idea with their mysogynistic dogma:

    “the only justification for the existence of people who happen to be FEmale is their reproductive utility”?

    Just something to think about. Is this the reason that so many people are afraid of cloning and, perhaps, this new type of sperm creation? It turns their sexist ideology on its head?

  6. Heh, I've been so dissociated from religion that I forgot that Eve, and thus Women, are to blame for all the world's problems, as is evidenced by the fact that even the most virtuous of men finds the occasional woman pretty sexy :p

    In any case, I would like to think that any objective person would conclude that it's the contents of your mind, and not your pants, that determines your worth. The objective may even manage to convince the rest of us :p

    "Is this the reason that so many people are afraid of cloning and, perhaps, this new type of sperm creation? It turns their sexist ideology on its head?"

    Perhaps. It IS interesting to think about (: Many people do seem to feel personally threatened by the idea that hetero sex isn't required for reproduction. Is a desire for things to remain as our biology "dictates" a form of negative bias? Are these people sexist, or something similar?

  7. University of Newcastle? Blimey! That's just 12 miles away from me! If this becomes an epidemic that spreads from there, I'll be the first to be affected.

    I'll let you know how it goes if I survive the de-manning.

  8. Just remember (and this is an arguement I've heard before): If God wanted them to be able to produce offspring, they wouldn't have been sterile.

    If Nature made them sterile, who are we to gainsay Nature?

    Or, more simply: It's immoral because I don't like it.

    As I've said before: In science, if it can be done, it will be done. Ethics have nothing to do with it.

  9. When I read the post, I assumed that the scientists were seeking ethical permission because it would involve experimentation on humans rather than because it would violate the "1 man + 1 woman = sweat & babies" rule.

    I dimly remember the debate about test-tube babies. There were some people who were protesting on the grounds that it violated the "laws of nature", but the greater ethical argument was based on the fear that, if something went wrong, a human would die or live a horribly painful life.

    The use of the phrase "rudimentary sperm cells" makes me wonder if they are going to get all of the right genes on the right chromosomes. I think that the more ethical choice is the option referred to by neverclear5: perfect it in animals before trying it in people.

  10. >perfect it in animals before trying it in people.

    Without question. The full article says they are doing some sort of testing in hamsters.

  11. I have a hard time seeing how this technology can be isolated from ethical considerations. Despite the glib assertions that they will surely perfect the technique in animals before trying it in people, it's not clear how you could ever be entirely sure that the technique would not result in potential problems for any resulting children. I don't think you can equate this with IVF, since that procedure at least begins with naturally produced sperm and egg cells. Even after multiple generations of animals had been produced this way and lived out healthy, normal lives, I would still be very hesitant to apply it to human beings. If you get it wrong at that point, the ramifications could be huge!

    I would go on, but I have already fallen asleep at the keyboard three times since starting this post. Maybe another time.

  12. Liam, it's not a case of something sinister resulting in a zillion years, it won't happen in the next hundred, sure, but some problems are already there, such as father's passing their infertility on to their sons . At what point do you say "oh, sure it was ethical to use this treatment eariler, when there were so few cases, but now we have to stop"?

    And that's just one problem with one method.

  13. The only ethical consideration, from my point of view, would be the viability of the procedure, i.e. it produces healthy offspring. Anything else is just politics, religiously motivated or otherwise.

    @Bjonar, but this procedure, if successful, would enable any infertile offspring produced to produce their own biological children. Since modern medicine has developed we have been both keeping alive offspring who then pass on their 'defective' genes that would have otherwise died as well as helping infertile couples have offspring, whatever the cause of their infertility.

    If we follow your point through to its logical conclusion, we should stop all medical intervention or help if it means the possibility of passing on faulty genes to the next generation. I.e. eugenics by any other name, where only those who pass a DNA test are allowed to breed.

  14. I'd have thought there'd be a deal of technical issues, not least that going from 'rudimentary' to 'viable' is a pretty big step.

    It does seem like regular sperm production is a bit of a shotgun affair, with maybe only a small fraction actually being viable and a large number being somewhat substandard. If someone has to do all kinds of playing around with cells to get them to become sperm in the first place, I wouldn't be surprised if the success rate was rather lower than in the natural mass-production method.

    Leaving practicalities aside, at first glance, the ethics seem rather on the level of cloning. If two women wanted to produce a child that could never have come about naturally (or, if a complementary procedure allowed egg cells to be generated from male tissue, two men wanted to produce a child that could never have come about naturally), it seems little different from someone wanting a clone of themselves, or maybe a group of people wanting a child that had genetic material from all of them.

    However, if procedures could be made safe for both sexes, there's arguably no obvious clear-cut point at which to draw a line between producing sperm from male tissue and from female tissue. In the case of men, as long as the procedure doesn't increase the risk of unhealthy offspring, there does seem to be a continuum between restoring fertility after disease or accident and enhancing fertility which was possibly not great or even present in the first place.

    When comparing producing sperm from a naturally infertile man and from a woman, the only clear ethical difference could be that the latter is effectively also sexual selection by the back door.

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