The Dance of Life
How does a single fertilized egg transform itself into a complex human being?
Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz was pregnant, aged 44, when a genetic test routinely recommended for older mothers came back with that dreaded word: ‘abnormal’. It showed that more than a quarter of her sampled cells were abnormal, and she was warned that her baby had an increased risk of being miscarried or born with birth defects.
It just so happened however that Zernicka-Goetz was also a leading developmental biologist. Fuelled by both her maternal instinct and scientific knowledge, she decided to continue her pregnancy alongside her research as she tried to find out whether her test result could simply have been a false alarm. Happily, it was: six months after that worrying news, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The research went on to prove that – as she had suspected – the embryo has an amazing and previously unknown ability to correct abnormal cells at an early stage of its life.
Zernicka-Goetz has since astonished the world with further trailblazing research. She has shown that cells in the embryo become predisposed to follow particular developmental paths much earlier than thought. She has doubled the survival time of human embryos in the laboratory, having invented a new technique for allowing human embryos to grow in culture for up to 13 days – work that could allow embryos to survive for longer in the lab than the current legal limit of 14 days. And without either eggs or sperm, her lab has made first the artificial embryos, using two types of stem cells and a three-dimensional scaffold on which they can grow. As well as vividly demonstrating how early life is programmed to repair and organise itself, all this work has important implications for efforts to grow embryo stem cells, to diagnose and correct hereditary disorders in IVF embryos, to prevent miscarriages and to understand the fundamentals of development.
In The Dance of Life, Zernicka-Goetz teams up with the acclaimed science writer Roger Highfield to show how science is shedding light on this very first chapter of the human story. Along the way she tells her own inspirational story of triumph in the face of adversity, from growing up in her father’s laboratory in Communist Poland, through defending her dogma-challenging research against attacks by rivals and confronting the ethical questions opened up by her research, to overcoming the everyday struggles faced by women scientists working in a male-dominated academic world.
Interweaving the personal with the professional, The Dance of Life is a moving celebration of the balletic beauty of life’s beginnings – a book not just for those interested in cutting-edge biology and medicine but for anyone grappling with the profound, life-changing decisions shaped by this awe-inspiring research.