If you’ve seen the movie Gattaca, you might understand the implications of eugenics, or genetically altering DNA to create a more perfect human. The film was science fiction way back in 1997, but since then, we’ve made a lot of progress in understanding our genetic code, making this sort of society (at least theoretically) possible. Both the US and UK governments are now considering allowing the genetic modification of embryos to battle mitochondrial diseases by mixing in a third parent’s mitochondrial DNA.
Mitochondrial diseases, which include muscular dystrophy, happen when there are mutations within the genes carried by mitochondria, the organelles that carry energy to the body’s cells. Our mitochondria come from our mothers, making the diseases something that are maternally inherited and passed down to future generations. A three-parent embryo occurs when genes from a healthy egg are transferred to one with unhealthy mitochondria and then combined with sperm from the father. The result is a healthy baby, as well as healthy future generations: this genetic modification passes down from one generation to another. If approved, this could essentially wipe out mitochondrial diseases for good.
This technique has already been tested in models and in animals, and it’s under strong consideration as an effective way to fight mitochondrial diseases in humans. Now, the UK and US governments are looking over this new technology and beginning to come up with regulations to control the process. As it stands, genetic modification of embryos is forbidden in both countries, but the lure of wiping out diseases like muscular dystrophy makes this idea too important to ignore. Before such a process gets approval, both countries must address certain ethical questions and concerns and decide where the line for genetic modification gets drawn.