The Science of Sustainability

Test Tube Baby Nobel Prize

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Dr. Edwards got his Nobel Prize for getting this to work in a Petri dish.

The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given to Dr. Robert Edwards for his work on in vitro fertilization (IVF). Basically, he pioneered the fertilization of human eggs with sperm in a Petri dish.

IVF has obviously had a huge impact on society. Millions of infertile couples have been able to have children. And families that have severe genetic diseases in their family tree have been able to have children without these diseases partly because of IVF. (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis or PGD is the other part of that equation.) IVF has also provided a steady supply of embryonic stem cells for research.

Of course, there have been some downsides as well. Millions of frozen embryos will eventually be thrown away. This is mass murder to people who believe these embryos are a life. And being able to select embryos without genetic disease opens up the possibility of selecting embryos for more troubling, trivial traits like gender or hair, skin, and eye color.

At first blush, though, the science itself might not seem to be all that Nobel-worthy. He put an egg and some sperm in a dish, let the sperm do their work and then put the embryo back into a mom. Sounds too simple for a Nobel Prize. But it wasn’t.

Getting eggs is hard. And getting eggs that can be successfully fertilized in a lab is really hard.

When they first tried IVF, his research group found that the fertilized egg would divide once and that was that. Hardly the bouncing baby the infertile parents were hoping for!

So Dr. Edwards and his lab had to research how eggs develop in order to get eggs that could be successfully fertilized. Among other things, they learned in incredible detail the cascade of hormones required to get an egg ready for fertilization. It was collateral knowledge like this on the way to IVF that was a big part of why Dr. Edwards earned his Nobel Prize.

All in all it looks like the Nobel committee made a good choice in finally giving Dr. Edwards the Nobel Prize. Click here to see if you think this Nobel Prize stacks up to others in this category.

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
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