Europe's debate on research using embryonic stem cells has ended for now in stalemate, leaving cell biologists uncertain as to where they stand.

The research ministers of the European Union's member states met on 3 December but failed to agree on whether European Union funding should be available for research using newly derived human embryonic stem cells. A moratorium on such funding will expire on 31 December.

In the absence of an agreement, the European Commission is now, at least in theory, free to fund future projects in its Sixth Framework Programme that exploit new cell lines. Although some of the European Union's member states are opposed to the use of new cell lines, the commission has said that it will think carefully about individual project proposals on a case-by-case basis.

In January, European Commission officials said that participants in the Sixth Framework Programme could use only embryonic stem cells that had been derived before the end of 2002, and gave the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers a year to develop clear rules on whether new cell lines produced from spare embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics could also be used.

Some countries, including the United Kingdom, allow such research to be carried out with public funds, whereas other nations, such as Germany, allow only existing cell lines to be used.

Last month, the European Parliament voted in favour of the use of newly derived cell lines, which some commissioners hoped would encourage waverers within the council also to vote liberally. But in the absence of a decision by the ministers, the European Commission will have to make its own rules about what it will allow in its next call for Framework proposals in June.

Ireland, which will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union from Italy in January, may call for another vote in the spring, but is under no obligation to do so. “Everything is still as open as it ever was,” says Octavi Quintana Trias, head of life sciences at the commission's research directorate.