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UK Lawmakers Vote to Allow Using 3 Different People's DNA In Embryos

Illustration for article titled UK Lawmakers Vote to Allow Using 3 Different Peoples DNA In Embryos

The UK House of Commons voted to legalize the cultivation of "designer babies," created by genetically modifying the DNA of three people to make one fetus devoid of diseases on Tuesday. Gattica is real, guys.

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The goal is to stop the passage of inherited diseases from mother to child and now that process is legal, according to the BBC, thanks to a 382-128 vote in the House of Commons.

From the Associated Press:

The government published rules in December on how the techniques should be used. The U.K.'s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Sally Davies, said they should be legalized "to give women who carry severe mitochondrial disease the opportunity to have children without passing on devastating genetic disorders."

Defects in the mitochondria can result in diseases including muscular dystrophy, heart, kidney and liver failure and severe muscle weakness.

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All of those illnesses are terrible and developing a way to sidestep them sounds great but it is also unknown what other, if any, side effects may develop from this type of genetic tinkering—that is what's making people nervous. Still, experts say DNA splicing is already used in China and Japan without regulation. Scientists stateside say it'd take years to determine whether splicing DNA is safe. But for people like Rachel Kean, an activist for the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, this development is the difference between having or not having a baby.

"Every medical procedure ultimately carries a small risk," she said, pointing out that the first baby created using in-vitro fertilization would never have been born if scientists hadn't risked experimenting with unproven methods. "It's everybody's prerogative to object due to their own personal beliefs. But to me the most ethical option is stopping these devastating diseases from causing suffering in the future."

Image via Shutterstock.

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DISCUSSION

queen-of-bithynia
Queen of Bithynia

"Designer babies"?

Just to clarify, the procedure takes a fertilized egg and moves its nucleus into an egg cell from a donor. That means all of the regular DNA — in fact, technically, all the human DNA — in the resulting embryo/irritating child comes from the two parents, as though the child were conceived naturally.

The point of this is so that the embryo has its parents' DNA, while its mitochondria comes from the donor. Mitochondria are small structures in cells that reproduce on their own and have their own DNA; they are present in every human cell (and in fact, the cells of every animal, plant, or virus) and they play an important role in allowing the cell to extract energy from glucose.

The reason why mitochondria have their own separate DNA is that they originated as their own separate critters: they are descended from bacteria that formed a symbiotic relationship with larger cells, moving in and performing some chemical tasks that were impossible for the larger cells to do on their own.

So the resulting child ends up having some third person's mitochondrial DNA — and the point of this is to prevent the child from developing diseases resulting from being passed faulty mitochondria from its mother; these are often very devastating diseases, passed from mother to child.

The important takeaway is that there's no sinister genetic meddling going on here. The child's actual human DNA — all the chromosomes, including all the bits that determine the child's traits — come unaltered from the mixing of the parents' DNA, in exactly the same way as it does with children conceived normally. The child's genome hasn't been altered in any way. This is the right decision and it's really a no-brainer.