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When, exactly, does life begin? Is it when the sperm meets the egg, as many believe, or at some abstract moment of viability in the development of a fetus, as others would suggest? Well, scientists from Northwestern University have made a discovery that will throw fuel on this fire.

At the start–the earliest moment of conception–researchers have now witnessed a spark of light.

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Professor Teresa Woodruff, co-author of the report, wrote that her team “discovered the zinc spark just five years ago in the mouse.” That alone would be news worthy, but they broadened the experiment. “To see the zinc radiate out in a burst from each human egg was breathtaking. All of biology starts at the time of fertilization, yet we know next to nothing about the events that occur in the human.”

What does the light mean, exactly? The scientists are still unsure, though they’ve been able to make some observations that suggest how this development may prove useful.

First, the spark is brighter in eggs that prove to be more healthy. While this isn’t something you’ll be able to see or test at home, it could be a solid indicator of a viable embryo for use in vitro fertilization, where more than 50% of implanted eggs fail.

Woodruff writes,”it’s a way of sorting egg quality in a way we’ve never been able to assess before.”

“This is an important discovery because it may give us a non-invasive and easily visible way to assess the health of an egg and eventually an embryo before implantation,” said co-author Dr Eve Feinberg. “There are no tools currently available that tell us if it’s a good quality egg. Often we don’t know whether the egg or embryo is truly viable until we see if a pregnancy ensues. That’s the reason this is so transformative. If we have the ability up front to see what is a good egg and what’s not, it will help us know which embryo to transfer, avoid a lot of heartache and achieve pregnancy much more quickly.”

The image below shows the process.

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This development will have clear implications for couples who are having difficulty conceiving. Knowing which of the eggs would be the best for implantation will cut out a lot of heartache and disappointment. Yet there’s more. This “flash of light” phenomena has some seeing larger implications. There’s something here that can be seen, early–at the first possible moment–and it has left even the scientists trying to catch their breath.