Caltech Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz Will Address Fundamental Questions About How Life Begins 

Published on Nov 1, 2022

Caltech’s Bren Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz. [Photo courtesy of Caltech]

In the upcoming installment of the Watson Lecture series at Caltech on Wednesday, Bren Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, will describe how she and her research group have developed mouse embryo models without eggs or sperm, and instead used stem cells – described as the body’s master cells, which can develop into almost any cell type in the body. 


Zernicka-Goetz and team, with researchers from the University of Cambridge and Caltech, have created model mouse embryos from stem cells that have beating hearts, as well as the foundations for a brain and all of the other organs in the mouse body. 


On Wednesday, Nov. 2 “The Dance of Life: How Do We Become Ourselves?” will delve into the creation of a “synthetic” mouse embryo with a developing brain and beating heart grown from stem cells. 


During the lecture, Zernicka-Goetz will discuss what these models are teaching people about human development, specifically on how the study would help researchers understand why some pregnancies might fail and how to prevent it. 


Additionally, she will explore the applications of her research that could be used to guide repair and development of synthetic human organs for transplantation.


Research into Synthetic Mouse Embryos


The research was conducted in the laboratory of Zernicka-Goetz at Caltech, who is also a professor of mammalian development and stem cell biology in Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience. 


A paper describing the breakthrough synthetic mouse embryo appeared in the journal Nature on August 25.


The researchers mimicked natural processes in the lab by guiding the three types of stem cells found in early mammalian development to the point where they start interacting. By inducing the expression of a particular set of genes and establishing a unique environment for their interactions, the researchers were able to get the stem cells to ‘talk’ to each other,” a report by Cambridge University said in August. 


They also added that this is a further point in development than has been achieved in any other stem cell-derived model.


“Our mouse embryo model not only develops a brain, but also a beating heart, all the components that go on to make up the body,” Zernicka-Goetz told Cambridge. 


“It’s just unbelievable that we’ve got this far. This has been the dream of our community for years, and a major focus of our work for a decade, and finally we’ve done it.”




Zernicka-Goetz joined the Caltech faculty in 2019. Prior to arriving at Caltech, she was professor of mammalian development and stem cell biology at the University of Cambridge, England. She is a fellow of the British Academy of Medical Science and a recipient of an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. 


Earlier this year, she was awarded the 2022 Edwin G. Conklin Medal from the Society for Developmental Biology in recognition of her “extraordinary research contributions to the field” and her excellent mentorship of the next generation of scientists.


Spanning 25 years, research from Zernicka-Goetz’s lab has broken new ground in studies of “human embryo development in vitro, cell fate specification in mouse embryos, and the creation of synthetic embryos from multiple stem cell types.”


Watson Lecture on Wednesday, November 2 


Zernicka-Goetz’s free lecture, which is part of Caltech’s celebration of the 100th anniversary season of the Earnest C. Watson lecture series, will be presented in a hybrid format. 


The lecture can be viewed via live stream on or on Caltech’s YouTube channel. Virtual viewers can submit questions for the lecturer through the YouTube chat feed. Select questions will be answered after the lecture, during the question and answer portion. 


The lecture will be presented in person at Beckman Auditorium on Caltech’s Pasadena campus. No advance registration is required for either format. 


Established in 1922, the Watson Lectures, originally known as the “Friday Evening Demonstration Lectures,” bring Caltech’s most innovative scientific research to the public.


The public lecture series was started by Watson, a professor of physics at Caltech, in order to share modern scientific advances with the public. 

Previous Watson Lectures are available on YouTube.


For more information regarding Caltech’s upcoming events, visit:


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