When Does Human Life Truly Begin?

In this fascinating new review, researchers Polina A. Loseva and Vadim N. Gladyshev discuss “The beginning of becoming a human.”

For centuries, the question of when human life commences has perplexed philosophers, theologians, and scientists alike. With the advent of modern reproductive technologies and groundbreaking scientific advancements, this profound inquiry has taken on renewed urgency and complexity. In a fascinating new review paper, researchers Polina A. Loseva and Vadim N. Gladyshev from Harvard Medical School delved into this intricate subject, exploring the multifaceted perspectives that have shaped our understanding of life’s origins. On May 6, 2024, their review was published on the cover of Aging’s Volume 16, Issue 9, entitled, “The beginning of becoming a human.” Below, this article breaks down their chronological review of the various ways life has been defined: movement, fusion, self-sufficiency, uniqueness, and now, aging.

Life Defined by Movement: The Quickening

Historically, the notion of life’s inception was inextricably linked to the first perceptible movements of the fetus within the womb, a phenomenon known as “quickening.” In 18th-century England, this milestone was so pivotal that it could even pardon a pregnant woman sentenced to hanging. However, as our comprehension of embryonic development deepened, it became evident that quickening is an unreliable indicator, as the timing varies widely among individuals and is largely dependent on maternal factors.

Life Defined by Fusion: The Conception Conundrum

Another perspective posits that life begins at the moment of conception, when the egg and sperm fuse, forming a unique genetic entity distinct from its progenitors. However, this definition encounters challenges, as the newly formed zygote lacks a fully assembled nucleus and functional genome initially. Furthermore, the ability to split or combine embryos during the early stages raises philosophical quandaries about the individuality and uniqueness of life.

Life Defined by Self-Sufficiency: Viability and Technological Advancement

As medical technologies advanced, the definition of life’s beginning shifted towards the point at which the fetus could theoretically survive outside the womb, albeit with medical intervention. This threshold, known as “viability,” has been a moving target, continually redefined as neonatal care capabilities improve. However, with the advent of artificial womb systems, this criterion may become increasingly ambiguous.

In the midst of the heated debates surrounding reproductive technologies and embryonic experimentation in the 1980s, the Warnock Committee was tasked with establishing ethical boundaries. Their landmark report introduced the “14-day rule,” a compromise that prohibited the cultivation or experimentation on human embryos beyond 14 days after fertilization. While the rationale behind this specific timeframe was somewhat arbitrary, it struck a delicate balance between scientific progress and ethical considerations.

Life Defined by Uniqueness: The Gastrulation Milestone

Remarkably, the 14-day stage coincides with a pivotal developmental event known as gastrulation, during which the embryo transitions from a single-layered structure to a three-layered disc that prefigures the body plan of a vertebrate organism. This transformation not only establishes the embryo’s anterior-posterior, dorsal-ventral, and left-right axes but also marks the point at which the embryo becomes increasingly resistant to splitting or combining, solidifying its individuality.

As scientific capabilities advanced, the ability to culture human embryos beyond the 14-day threshold became a reality, reigniting discussions about revising the Warnock Committee’s guidelines. Proponents argued that this boundary was arbitrary and that our improved understanding of neural development warranted an extension. Others proposed alternative timeframes, such as 22 days (when the nervous system begins to form) or 28 days (when abortions are typically not performed). Ultimately, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) opted for a case-by-case approach, with individual oversight committees evaluating each experiment’s merits.

Life Defined by Aging: A Paradigm Shift

Intriguingly, recent studies have shed light on an overlooked aspect of embryonic development: the onset of aging. By employing epigenetic clocks and other molecular biomarkers, researchers have discovered that the “ground zero” point of aging coincides remarkably with the 14-day stage, marking the transition from a rejuvenated state to the commencement of the aging process. This finding not only reinforces the significance of this developmental milestone but also prompts a reconsideration of life’s beginnings from the perspective of aging trajectories.

The 14++ Conundrum: Navigating Ethical and Scientific Imperatives

As the debate surrounding the 14-day rule continues to evolve, a paradoxical situation has emerged: the scientific consensus on the beginning of life remains elusive, while the ethical boundaries are subject to ongoing reevaluation and case-by-case determinations. This dichotomy underscores the need for a broader discussion involving not only embryologists but also bioethicists, legal experts, and diverse societal stakeholders.

Rather than seeking a definitive answer to the question of when human life begins, a more holistic approach may be to consider the emergence of different levels of life organization during embryonic development. These levels could encompass the cellular, organismal, and human life levels, each with its own unique characteristics and potential boundaries. By recognizing the complexity and multidimensionality of this process, we may gain a deeper appreciation for the intricate tapestry that weaves together the beginnings of human existence.

Synthetic Embryos: Witnessing the Emergence of Life In Vitro

While the 14-day stage may not represent the ultimate boundary for human life, it emerges as a compelling candidate for the transition to organismal life. At this juncture, the embryo exhibits signs of self/non-self discrimination, with cells organized into layers that prefigure the body plan. Concurrently, the rejuvenation processes conclude, and the aging trajectory commences for the somatic cells. This confluence of events suggests that the 14-day stage marks the emergence of a living organism, even if it may not yet possess all the attributes of a human being.

Recent breakthroughs in the generation of synthetic embryos, or “embryoids,” from pluripotent stem cells have opened up unprecedented opportunities to witness the emergence of organismal life in vitro. By recapitulating the early stages of human development, including gastrulation and the formation of embryonic layers, these synthetic models offer a unique window into the intricate processes underlying the transition from a collection of cells to an organized, living entity.

The Path Forward: Embracing Complexity and Collaboration

As we continue to unravel the enigma of life’s beginnings, it is evident that a multidisciplinary approach is essential. Collaboration among embryologists, bioethicists, legal scholars, and diverse stakeholders will be crucial in navigating the ethical and scientific complexities that arise. By embracing the nuances and respecting the perspectives of various disciplines, we can collectively chart a course that harmonizes scientific progress with ethical considerations, ultimately deepening our understanding of the profound journey that culminates in the emergence of a human being.

Click here to read the full review paper published in Aging.

Aging is an open-access, traditional, peer-reviewed journal that publishes high-impact papers in all fields of aging research. All papers are available to readers (at no cost and free of subscription barriers) in bi-monthly issues at Aging-US.com.

Click here to subscribe to Aging publication updates.

For media inquiries, please contact [email protected].

What Makes Children of Older Fathers at Increased Risk of Autism?

In this new study, researchers investigated the relationship between paternal age, the BEGAIN gene and autism.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in communication and social interaction, as well as repetitive behaviors. It has been observed that children born to older fathers have an increased risk of developing ASD and other neurodevelopmental disorders. This phenomenon suggests that paternal age may have an impact on the risk of ASD in offspring.

Recent research has focused on understanding the potential mechanisms underlying the association between paternal age and ASD. One area of interest is the epigenome, specifically DNA methylation, which refers to the addition or removal of methyl groups to DNA molecules. DNA methylation can affect gene expression and play a role in various biological processes.

In a new study, researchers Ramya Potabattula, Andreas Prell, Marcus Dittrich, Caroline Nava, Christel Depienne, Yosra Bejaoui, Nady El Hajj, Thomas Hahn, Martin Schorsch, and Thomas Haaf from Julius Maximilians University, Groupe Hospitalier Pitié-Salpêtrière, University Hospital Essen, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, and Fertility Center in Wiesbaden, Germany, explored the relationship between paternal age, DNA methylation of the BEGAIN gene, and the risk of ASD. The BEGAIN gene encodes a protein involved in protein-protein interactions at synapses, which are crucial for proper brain function. On November 28, 2023, their research paper was published in Aging’s Volume 15, Issue 22, entitled, “Effects of paternal and chronological age on BEGAIN methylation and its possible role in autism.”

“So far, only 40 genes with sperm ageDMRs [age-associated differentially methylated regions] have been replicated in at least three independent genome-wide methylation screens [19], which makes them primary candidates for mediating paternal age effects on the next generation. Here, we focused on one of these top candidates, the BEGAIN promoter region.”

The Study

The study focused on examining the impact of paternal age on BEGAIN methylation. Various techniques were employed to investigate this relationship. Sperm samples from normozoospermic individuals attending a fertility center were analyzed. The researchers aimed to understand how paternal age influences BEGAIN methylation, specifically observing its trends in sperm.

To extend their exploration of transgenerational effects, fetal cord blood samples were also examined. The team aimed to discern whether paternal age influenced BEGAIN methylation differently in male and female offspring. The research team employed meticulous analyses to understand the sex-specific patterns associated with paternal age and BEGAIN methylation.

They also delved into the effects of chronological age on BEGAIN methylation. Peripheral blood samples from individuals of different ages were analyzed to investigate the relationship between chronological age and BEGAIN methylation. The study aimed to discern whether BEGAIN methylation undergoes changes with age in a sex-specific manner.

“It is tempting to speculate that transmission of paternal age-associated sperm methylation changes into the next generation modulates BEGAIN regulation and susceptibility to neurodevelopmental disorders.”

The Results

The research yielded significant findings. A negative correlation between paternal age and BEGAIN methylation was identified, suggesting a decrease in BEGAIN methylation in sperm as paternal age increases. The sex-specific impact of paternal age on BEGAIN methylation was observed, with a significant negative correlation in male offspring but not in female offspring.

Regarding chronological age, a significant negative correlation with BEGAIN methylation was found in males but not in females, indicating a potential sex-specific age-related change in BEGAIN methylation.

The study also explored the association between BEGAIN methylation and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Individuals with ASD were found to have significantly lower levels of BEGAIN methylation compared to age- and sex-matched controls, suggesting a potential involvement of BEGAIN methylation in the development of ASD.

Furthermore, the researchers identified a genetic variant, SNP rs7141087, associated with BEGAIN methylation. The CC genotype of this SNP was linked to lower levels of BEGAIN methylation compared to the TT genotype, potentially contributing to observed differences in BEGAIN methylation between individuals with ASD and controls.

“Individuals with CC genotype of SNP rs7141087 which show a 6% lower methylation than the TT genotype are significantly more frequent in our ASD group than in controls. This could be due to an association of the C allele with autism.”

Conclusions & Future Research

In conclusion, this research provides valuable insights into the effects of paternal and chronological age on BEGAIN methylation and its potential role in ASD. The findings suggest that paternal age and chronological age can influence BEGAIN methylation, and these changes may be associated with an increased risk of ASD. Further research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms underlying these associations and their implications for the development of ASD.

“The male-specific hypomethylation of the BEGAIN promoter in blood, and by extrapolation other somatic tissues is exaggerated in males suffering from autism. Moreover, our results also show a paternal age effect on BEGAIN methylation in sperm and the male offspring (FCB). […] However, the functional implications of small age-associated methylation changes in BEGAIN in a multifactorial disease model remain to be elucidated.”

Click here to read the full study published in Aging.

Aging is an open-access, traditional, peer-reviewed journal that has published high-impact papers in all fields of aging research since 2009. All papers are available to readers (at no cost and free of subscription barriers) in bi-monthly issues at Aging-US.com.

Click here to subscribe to Aging publication updates.

For media inquiries, please contact [email protected].

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