The technique is controversial, at least in the media accounts, because the child that is conceived would have three parents.
The truth is a little more complicated but a lot less dramatic. Most of the genes in our cells are located in chromosomes, which we get from both our parents. A very few genes are located outside the chromosomes in small structures called mitochondria. These genes—our “mitochondrial DNA”—are necessary for energy production in the cell. If they are defective, the result can be a number of diseases.
We get our mitochondria only from our mothers. That means that if a woman has a defect in her mitochondrial DNA, she will inevitably pass it on to all her children, who may be more or less ill than she has been during her lifetime.
But what if a couple could conceive a child using their own chromosomal DNA while using a donor’s mitochondria? That would give the couple the best opportunity to have a child that is almost entirely “their own” genetically while avoiding diseases associated with mitochondrial irregularities. That’s the hope that doctors in Australia are holding out.
In 2001, word leaked out that a fertility clinic in New Jersey was quietly offering this technique. The report triggered a bit of a flap, mostly over issues of safety and the utter lack of government oversight or public moral reflection. The best account of that episode is found in an essay by Erik Parens and Eric Juengst, “Inadvertently Crossing the Germ Line,” appearing in the journal Science in April of 2001.
Is the strategy safe? Should it be permitted? Is it moral? Is “germline” modification in general ethically defensible? Is it religiously objectionable?
I try to address some of these questions in my 2008 collection of essays, Design and Destiny: Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Human Germline Modification. Among other findings: Catholic teachings may object to specific techniques but not so much to the core idea. As long is “in vitro” techniques are not used, what could be wrong with helping a couple conceive a healthy child? (See my earlier post.) But for all religious people, is there a line to be drawn between germline modification aimed at avoiding disease and the very same technique that might be used to produce a “better” child—one that is smarter or healthier than normal?
To be clear, the Australian scientists are proposing no such thing. But as they know, these techniques will likely advance along a common front. The minimal modification to avoid mitochondrial disorders will help pave the way to germline modification to avoid other diseases. And those techniques will almost certainly lead in time to the possibility of enhancing our offspring.