US scientists claim to have created human eggs and sperm in a laboratory, sparking ethical concerns.
Scientists in California used embryonic stem cells to create sperm which were reasonably mature and eggs at an early stage of development.
But pro-life groups have expressed concern at the breakthrough which has been described as “unethical”.
Scientists at Stanford University found the right mixture of chemicals and vitamins to turn the stem cells into eggs and sperm.
The sperm had heads and short tails and are thought to have been mature enough to fertilise an egg.
The eggs were at a much earlier stage but were still futher developed than any created so far by scientists.
Researcher Rita Reijo Pera, from Stanford’s Centre for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, said any future use of artificial eggs and sperm would have to be subject to ethical guidelines.
Dr Reijo Pera said: “Whether one builds the boundaries on religion or just on an internal sense of right and wrong, these are important. In this field, it is not ‘anything goes’.”
Many pro-life groups have voiced warnings about the study.
Dr Peter Saunders, of the Christian Medical Fellowship, said: “The question is, why are we creating artificial gametes (eggs and sperm) and aborting 200,000 babies a year when there are many, many couples willing to adopt?”
Josephine Quintavalle, of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, warned that any flaws in the artificial sperm or eggs could be passed on to future generations.
Anthony Ozimic of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) commented: “This research is unethical, because human embryos – innocent, equal members of the human family – were killed to extract the embryonic stem cells used in the research.
“Even if the research hadn’t involved embryo-killing, the creation of artificial gametes would enable even more human embryos to be created outside the human body, to be killed and abused.”
In July scientists in Newcastle claimed to have created artificial sperm in a laboratory for the first time.
The research, carried out at the North East England Stem Cell Institute, involved the destruction of human embryos.
Professor Karim Nayernia, who led the team, said at the time: “This is an important development as it will allow researchers to study in detail how sperm forms”.
However, the scientific paper has now been withdrawn because of errors surrounding its submission.