LONDON, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) -- For the first time researchers have used genome editing techniques to study gene function in human embryos, revealing the role of a key gene in the embryos' first few days of development, according to a study released on Wednesday by the Francis Crick Institute.
The results could help scientists better understand the biology of human early development.
The team led by researchers from the institute used genome editing techniques to stop a key gene from producing a protein called OCT4, which normally becomes active in the first few days of human embryo development.
After the egg is fertilized, it divides until at about seven days it forms a ball of around 200 cells called the "blastocyst." The study found that human embryos need OCT4 to correctly form a blastocyst.
"If we knew the key genes that embryos need to develop successfully, we could improve IVF treatments and understand some causes of pregnancy failure," said Dr Kathy Niakan from the Francis Crick Institute, who led the research, "It may take many years to achieve such an understanding; our study is just the first step."
As well as human embryo development, OCT4 is also thought to be important in stem cell biology. Pluripotent stem cells can become any other type of cell, and they can be derived from embryos or created from adult cells such as skin cells. Human embryonic stem cells are taken from a part of the developing embryo that has high levels of OCT4.
"We have the technology to create and use pluripotent stem cells, which is undoubtedly a fantastic achievement, but we still don't understand exactly how these cells work," said Dr James Turner, co-author of the study from the Francis Crick Institute.
The study has been published in the journal Nature.