Emma Wren Gibson, frozen as an embryo in 1992, was born a few days after Thanksgiving in 2017, more than 25 years later. It’s the longest an embryo is known to have been frozen before being born as baby.
In fact, the embryo that became Emma is only a year younger than the woman who gave birth to her, Tina Gibson. “This embryo and I could have been best friends,” Gibson, now 26, told CNN. Tina and her husband “adopted” the frozen embryo after learning he was likely infertile. It came from an anonymous couple who went through in vitro fertilization (where sperm and egg are united in a lab) and donated their remaining frozen embryos, which have remained suspended in time for more than two decades.
Today, IVF and the cryopreservation of resulting embryos are so commonplace that it’s easy to overlook how disruptive the process once seemed. “All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world,” James Watson once said about IVF. Others warned of the slippery slope to surrogate pregnancies, designer babies, and artificial wombs.
When The New York Times wrote about cryopreservation in 1974, experts envisioned a catalogue of “one-day-old frozen embryos, guaranteed free of all genetic defects, with sex, eye-color, probably I.Q. and other trait described in detail on the label. Just thaw and implant.” But what no one quite considered was how much the technology could eventually shift time—resulting in births like Emma’s.
In the beginning, embryos created through IVF were implanted in the womb immediately. The first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1978. It took six more years before doctors perfected the freezing and unfreezing technique. Zoe Leyland, the first baby from an embryo frozen after IVF, was born in Australia in 1984. The embryo had been frozen for what we might now consider a brief two months. Doctors in the United States, Britain, Israel, the Netherlands, and West Germany quickly picked up the procedure; over the next two years, more than two dozen babies were born from frozen embryos.
The ability to stop time, even briefly, offered practical advantages. Before cryopreservation, embryos had to be implanted all at once or discarded; now extra embryos could be saved for later, reducing the chance of twins and triplets. Doctors could wait for the moment a mother’s body was most ready to accept an embryo. And it eventually became possible, as predicted, to use the extra time to test embryos for genetic disease. (Actual designer babies are still far from reality, though.)
Freezing also bought time for families who were uneasy about discarding their extra embryos, but who were not sure about donation, either. Today, as many as a million frozen embryos are stored in tanks of liquid nitrogen. They remain even when their genetic parents die or divorce, inevitably raising legal questions. There are ethical questions, too: The National Embryo Donation Center, where the Gibsons “adopted” Emma, is a Christian fertility center whose purpose includes “protect[ing] the lives and dignity of frozen embryos.”
To make it even more complicated, no one knows exactly how long frozen embryos can remain suspended in time. The only way to know is to keep waiting. There are no official records on how long eggs are frozen before being implanted, but before Emma, the oldest known embryo that resulted in a live birth had been frozen for 20 years. A woman in New York gave birth to the boy in 2010. And in 2013, a woman gave birth from a 19-year-old embryo.
Theoretically, the reproductive specialist Barry Behr once told Scientific American, frozen embryos might last as long as a century or two. The real hitch, he said, is how cryopreservation could scramble ideas of family and generations:
The nature of reproduction and building families does not really foster an environment that would allow you to wait 50 years before you thaw your embryos out. Unless your daughter wanted to carry her sibling, for example, which in theory is possible: A person born from IVF may still have sibling embryos frozen and when they reach 30 and are infertile could technically thaw out the embryos that were created at the same time they were created, gestate them, and deliver their sibling. That hasn’t happened yet but it could be possible.
There may another practical consideration, too. Embryo-freezing technology has changed considerably in the last 25 years, and different freezing techniques require very different thawing techniques. Deborah Wachs, a doctor at the Reproductive Science Center of the Bay Area, where the 19-year-old embryo was thawed and implanted, says that her center was transitioning from an older slow-freezing technique to a new vitrification technique at the time. Their long-time lab director had been there since the embryo was first frozen.
“If you look at a new embryologist coming out, they will likely never slow freeze in their entire careers because all they will know is vitrification,” Wachs says. In 10 years, she notes, everyone will be much less familiar with how to thaw slow-frozen embryos. The limiting factor on how long frozen embryos can remained suspended in time may not be physics or biology, but the half-life of human knowledge.