Chinese scientists are said to be making headway in understanding the impetus for genome expressions during key stages of human pregnancy. Photo: People's Daily via CFP

Chinese scientists have made a “quantum leap” in genomics with their identification of a crucial factor that could activate gene expression in human embryos, the People’s Daily reports.

With the advance, China may be edging closer toward unraveling the mystery of human development in the womb. The research may also further open up the controversial frontier of eugenics.

Fertilized ovums are where human lives begin. The miraculous journey from such an ovum to becoming a fetus and ultimately a newborn infant, and the impetus behind gestation and antenatal development, remain largely unexplained in the field of life sciences.

Genes are expressed in accordance with a particular sequence known as genome expression programming, but this is little understood. However, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Beijing Institute of Genomics (BIG), Shandong University and Guangzhou Medical University claim to have made a breakthrough.

They say they have found a previously unknown factor at the “transcription” stage – the first step of gene expression – which they call Oct.4. They also claim to have discovered that transposons, a class of DNA elements, can jump from one position to another in a genome, thereby causing DNA mutations.

Transponsons are active in early embryos, and the mutations caused by their mobility can be passed onto the “germ line” and to future generations, the scientists say.

Xue Yongbiao said the research could shed new light on human embryonic development and evolution, and could even pave the way for a renewed theoretical foundation for the study of eugenics

The initial results have been published in the March issue of the scientific journal Cell.

Xue Yongbiao, director of the Beijing Institute of Genomics, told Xinhua the research could shed new light on human embryonic development and evolution, and could even pave the way for a renewed theoretical foundation for the study of eugenics.

The latter remains a sensitive frontier and a source of contention. Many see Beijing’s decades-long one-child policy as having normalized eugenics. Even after its relaxation in 2015, an obstetrician can mandate abortion if an “abnormal” fetus or deformity is found, yet definitions of abnormalities are vague and vary from province to province.

China passed a law on eugenics, the Maternal and Infant Health Care Law, in 1994. It authorizes physicians to mandate the postponement of a marriage if either party has an infectious, contagious disease, an active mental disorder or a serious hereditary disease and if the sufferer refuses to undergo longterm contraception or sterilization.

Moreover, if prenatal tests reveal that a fetus has a serious hereditary disease or serious deformity, a physician must advise the pregnant woman to have an abortion. The law states that the pregnant woman “should” follow this recommendation.

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