In an effort to rebuild a reputation tainted by disgraced cloning researcher Woo-suk Hwang, the South Korean government is requiring scientists to register all human embryonic stem (ES) cells that are used for research.

As of 1 January, researchers across the country must submit detailed information to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) in Seoul about all ES cell lines in their labs—whether they derived the cells or not. The necessary documentation includes records of who established the stem cells, a timeline of what the cells have been and will be used for and transfer agreement forms if the lines were purchased.

The registry involves more than just paperwork, however. A KCDC advisory committee will collect the stem cells and analyze them for DNA fingerprints, repetitive gene sequences, karyotype stability and bacterial contamination, among other factors. Adult stem cells do not require registration.

Kim Yong-woo, a senior scientist in the KCDC's division of life science research management, which oversees the registry, notes that the new rules build upon the country's stricter bioethics laws—established in 2005 amidst dispute over whether Hwang obtained the eggs used in his 2004 landmark paper in an ethical manner—to promote the credibility of Korean stem cell research. “At the end of the day, we don't want to have another ethical controversy like the Woo-suk Hwang case,” Kim told Nature Medicine.

Currently, only five institutes are authorized by the Korean government to create new stem cell lines—whether derived by cloning or from embryos leftover from fertility treatment—although Soeul's Cha General Hospital and Seoul National University are the only centers distributing their stem cell lines. Another 61 institutes are permitted to conduct research only on established ES cell lines.

Sepill Park, director of the Stem Cell Research Center at Cheju National University, sees the registry as a mixed blessing. He commends the KCDC's efforts to clean up the image of Korean scientists, but says that added incentives are needed to help researchers in the long run.

“It's wonderful that the government is taking initiative with ethical issues,” Park says. “But for researchers, we need added benefits to share that information, because we need to keep our competitiveness as well.”