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The three parent technique is genetic modification. Will parliament confront this?

29 July 2014

If I were choosing a third parent for a baby, you know, I’d be inclined to choose one of the Williams sisters — the top-notch tennis players. If you want to create a baby with really classy metabolism — and metabolic function is just what the third parent provides — you may as well make it good. But what you can’t do, in creating a baby that’s able to process energy efficiently, is pretend that this is anything other than genetic modification.

Yet the Department of Health, in effectively approving the three parent baby technique (actually, it’s always going to be two mothers plus one father), has redefined its categories in its proposals to allow mitochondrial DNA transfer. The proposals were published this week. If parliament approves the measure — and it’s unlikely that it won’t, given the inability of British parliamentarians to engage coherently with questions of moral philosophy — then it would make Britain the first country to allow three parent babies.


Characteristically, the BBC, in its interesting Radio 4 PM programme yesterday, engaged with the human aspect rather than the moral issues. It ran an interview with Liz Curtis, whose daughter Lily was a victim of mitochondrial disease, and very moving it was. Mrs Curtis is fully entitled to be an advocate for a change in the law but her arguments, perhaps inevitably, went almost entirely unchallenged. She observed that the technique was a bit like taking the yolk from an egg and just transferring it to another egg, and maintained that the technique didn’t involve any of the DNA that makes us what we are. It hardly merited the term ‘third parent’, she said.

Well, I’m sorry, but a second mother is exactly what the process provides. The technique inserts the fertilised nucleus from one egg with tainted mitochondria into another egg from which the nucleus has been removed. While the nucleus provides overwhelmingly the greater part of the genetic material in an egg, it constitutes only about half of the bulk of the ovum. The DNA in the mitochondria — the egg white, using Mrs Curtis’s analogy — is not negligible. It affects how efficiently we process energy, which is quite an important element of the DNA that we are going to transmit through the generations. As I said at the outset, if I were choosing an egg to provide efficient energy processing for a future offspring, I’d pick someone sporty as the second mother — viz, someone unlike me. I spoke to scientists about this question — rather eminent ones — when I wrote about it previously, and they made clear that the nucleus isn’t a self-standing entity; it communicates with the rest of the ovum, with the mitochondria. It’s not like putting your nuclear genetic material into a nice clean empty space. In other words, as Professor Robert Winston pointed out bluntly, genetic modification is exactly what this technique involves.

But, given how squeamish we are about hurting anyone’s feelings, given our habitual utilitarianism, our willingness to put ends above means, what are the chances that MPs will call this technique what it is — a radical development in human genetic modification? Wouldn’t bet on it myself.

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  • Damaris Tighe

    “[T]he inability of British parliamentarians to engage coherently with questions of moral philosophy”: unable because every sort of human tragedy now owns a campaigning group to promote unwise laws by trotting out, to tug on heart strings, the minority of sad cases that would benefit from them.

  • rtj1211

    This really is a very silly argument to be picking.

    1. This is not a ‘slippery slope’ situation: the child still has 23 chromosomes from the mother and 23 from the father in its nuclei.
    2. If I had the choice between two parents and a lifelong, debilitating illness and three parents and a happy, healthy long life, I’d be minded to put a bullet through your spine to make you share the pain that you would inflict upon me………ensuring that you didn’t die but were screaming in agony and then in relentless, unmitigating pain for years after surgery…….

    If this is genetic modification you can’t tolerate, don’t have your friends promoting GM Plants the way they do. This is a genetic modification that really has no spiritual, ethical or reproductive issues at all.

    It’s not cloning, it’s not inserting genes into chromosomes, it’s simply using someone else’s healthy mitochondrial DNA, from their egg, to ensure that two people with a rare genetic disease can have a healthy child with their chromosomal DNA in it.

    The natural GM processes which occur in the ovary and the testes are really far, far more significant than what you object to so strongly.

    Plenty of very early pregnancy foetuses abort due to nature’s imperfections, you know.

    You really should be objecting to ‘normal conception’ if you accept those misfits even being progressed to the 14 day stage of gestation……..

  • WimsThePhoenix

    The ignorance is breathtaking. The way to solve this is to accept a donor egg from someone who shares the same maternal line, and there are a huge number of these.

    The mitochondrial dna is absolutely distinct. It is paleolithic. It spans countless generations. It’s no different from accepting a kidney from your twin sister.

  • Liz

    Isn’t all reproduction genetic modification?

    • LaurenceBoyce

      Yes, and eugenics too, because people tend to pick good-looking healthy partners. Shocking!

  • Archibald Heatherington

    How simply revolting. You there, reading the Guardian, pass the bucket!

  • LaurenceBoyce

    “[Mitochondrial DNA] affects how efficiently we process energy, which is quite an important element of the DNA that we are going to transmit through the generations.”

    Indeed, and you want the defective stuff to continue being transmitted, presumably because that’s God’s will or something.

  • Jupiter

    Does anybody know if this process is safe? Surely that is the most important thing. We don’t want these babies, or their descendants if they are able to have any, growing up to be freaks.

    • Mark1984

      Nuclear transfer has been used for decades in biomedical research. I’ve never seen any papers stating inheritable consequences from its use; but this isn’t my field of research.

  • Mark1984

    Oh, for pities sake…
    What is happening is removal of the fertilised nucleus, and it is being inserted into another egg. Basically so that the mitochondria from mothers ovum is replaced with mitochondria from another individual. Mitochondrial inheritance is strictly matrilinear, so if there are any deleterious mutations then all offspring have them (and any genetic medical condition that may arise).

    Mitochondrial DNA is separate from nuclear DNA. This third individual will only be giving mitochondrial DNA to the child, there would be no alteration to the nuclear genome. It will not alter the person the child will become, other than preventing genetic conditions. (Yes, obviously the nucleus communicates with the rest of the cell, otherwise nothing would ever happen…) As for choosing a “sporty person”, god, this is exactly why newspapers and magazines should actually hire people who know something about science to write about it.

    Gene therapy also is genetic modification, so are you against that as well?

    • HookesLaw

      I think you make fair points. However judging from Ms McDonagh’s previous contributions I suspect she is immune from them.

    • Josephine Quintavalle

      1-0 to Melanie!

      There is a significant difference between genetic therapy taking place post- conception to cure an existing carrier of genetic disease (and therefore not passed on to subsequent generations), and what is known as germline genetic modification (in this instance putting together two father’s + one mother’s genetic material at the moment of conception).

      It is the latter experiment (germline genetic modification) which is being proposed in the UK as a pre-conception solution to mitochondrial disease.

      Whatever the significant ethical issues at stake, this is certainly not a cure. The mother – the carrier of mitochondria disease – would not be cured by the proposed manipulation of the embryos, and nor would any embryos who might be carrying the disease (given that they would not be allowed to come into existence).

      The embryo reconstructed in this proposed abnormal way with 3-genetic parents would be in essence a completely different kind of human embryo to you or me.

      Some very similar experiments with animals produced such appalling abnormalities in the offspring that the research was halted.
      How could we possibly consider this for the human species?

  • The Masked Marvel

    Who wants to wager that people who will support this are at the same time against GM foods?

    • Tom Owen

      And vice versa

      • The Masked Marvel

        Sure, although human life is a bit more important than plants or animals. Then there’s that whole eugenics gag.

    • HookesLaw

      Reading the above comment it would seem its not genetic modification so your GM point does not apply.
      My worry about GM is not so much the modification – we have been modifying animals and plants since for ever – its that GM is really cloning in that crops are created genetically identical and an infection could have disastrous consequences for a crop. Maybe I worry too much.

      • Mark1984

        It depends on your definition of modification. If you consider any deviation from the male and female gamete fusion, and the resultant nuclear and mitochondrial genome, then yes it is a modification (which is how I view it). Genetic modification of crops is something very different (more akin to gene therapy really).

      • Mark1984

        What you discuss about animals and plants is artificial selection, which isn’t really modification. It’s an alteration of the selection pressures the organisms are experiencing.

        A good example is the recent domestication of the fox in Russia. It is fascinating the morphological and behaviourial parallels between wild wolves – dogs, and wild foxes – domesticated foxes.

      • The Masked Marvel

        The technical specifics are beside the point. Either way it’s scientific enhancement/modification of life forms in the interests of creating a desired organism which would not otherwise exist in nature. You do worry too much, and this fear exists on a much larger scale amongst the vocal anti-GM food crowd. It’s an irrational fear of science, combined in most cases with an anti-corporate ideology (Monsanto, etc.). Admittedly, it’s often difficult to tell which factor is more important.

        At the same time, those who do not trust the science behind GM foods are often the same ones calling people ‘science deniers’ for not believing in Warmism. Of course, there the science is provably fraudulent, while the same cannot be said about food modification, which has saved countless lives already.

        • WimsThePhoenix

          Well, I am a climate science sceptic AND a GM sceptic, so as I don’t fit your box neatly, allow me to explain:

          I have no problem with gene modification of food animals, as long as they are clearly labelled so I can choose not to eat them until I can be sure it is safe to do so.

          I DO have a problem with modifications to crops that breed via airborne methods, because then I will likely have no way to choose not to eat them, unless I give up eating that particular species. I do not think that GM food makers have the right to contaminate natural varieties.

          Mammal breeding is relatively easy to control, but plants are not.

          • The Masked Marvel

            I have many boxes, and you fit yourself into one whether you like it or not. You have one of the lesser concerns over crop modification, I admit. Most seem to be an irrational fear of inserting genes for which “we” don’t know if there are negative ramifications. Scratch the surface of these complaints and one usually finds an anti-corporate agenda.

            As for airborne cross-contamination, you have a fair point, but either we place limits on where those modified crops can be grown (e.g. indoors or in isolated areas far removed from their cousins), or have a complete ban on working with crops which are pollinated that way. Considering that very important crops fall under that category, this isn’t likely to happen.

    • WimsThePhoenix

      That comment is as relevant as asking if they are against wind turbines.

      GM foods are almost always about allowing a plant to resist systemic pesticides.

      The two very very bad features of this are:

      1) Plants dna material is airborne, and very difficult to keep away from organic crops.

      2) WHO wants to buy a corn cob loaded with systemic pesticide?

      • The Masked Marvel

        GM foods are also about adding nutrients, such as the new “Golden Rice”, the flax strain that can produce omega-3s found in fish oil, or the barley engineered to make for better beer brewing.

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