With three biological parents, exactly whose baby is it?

For those who live in constant fear that we are rapidly heading towards a GATTACA-like society (if you haven’t seen this movie yet, go watch it. I’ll wait) look out! Science is taking a major leap that not even Andrew Niccol could have seen coming. Sometime in the not so distant future, your kid could have three parents. Well, more specifically two moms and one dad. This new procedure, called oocyte modification (or the more user-friendly three-parent IVF) is designed to lower the potential for genetically inherited genes being passed on to the baby.

I can't wait for the modern version of the children's book "Are You My Mother?" Photo by Bonnie U. Gruenberg

I can’t wait for the modern version of the children’s book “Are You My Mother?”
Photo by Bonnie U. Gruenberg

Here’s the watered down version of how it works. Basically, your cells have two different sets of DNA. One of these sets is what you usually think of when you think of DNA, with half coming from your dad and half coming from your mom. But the second, called mitochondrial DNA, you get all from your mother. That’s pretty cool because it lets you trace you heritage all the way back the female line because the mitochondrial DNA stays pretty much the same throughout generations. Or it did… until now. If you are unfortunate enough to have a mutation in your mitochondrial DNA that could cause your child to have a disease, then by using this technique your doctor can just scoop out (Scientific American’s words, not mine) your mitochondrial DNA and stick in some happy DNA from a healthy donor mom. It would be like if you were making deviled eggs and dropped the yolk on the floor and so you had to use the yolk from a different egg. Actually, it’s nothing like that at all, but I’m at a loss for a better analogy, so you get the idea! The rest is just like normal in vitro fertilization. They’ve actually had success in doing this in monkey and human embryos and are ready to move on to clinical trials.

So moving passed the immediate “What the hell!?” response, I want to dive into what exactly this will mean. The first questions that popped into my mind (and I’m guessing a lot of other people’s minds) is, how much of this baby will still be yours? Well, it depends on what part of your baby you care about. Mitochondrial DNA is stored in, you guessed it, the mitochondria! These are the part of the cell that make energy. But to get any further, we need a little cellular history lesson. Biology+history=fun!

Because mitochondria have their own DNA, there is a theory that waaaayyyyy back when the only life was a bunch of single cells floating around, one big cell (in typical big cell fashion) ate a little cell. But instead of the big cell breaking down and digesting the little cell, the two started working together. And so, the little cell became the mitochondria and made it possible for the big cell to go on to even bigger and better things.

Awww look, he has your mitochondria! Image by Louisa Howard

Awww, he has your mitochondria!
Image by Louisa Howard

As a result, it shouldn’t be very surprising that pretty much all the mitochondrial DNA goes toward the structure and function of the mitochondria itself. So, if you really want your child’s cells to make energy just like yours do, then three-parent IVF may not be for you. But the rest of baby will probably still be a chip off the original two blocks.

But this leads to my second question. Why do we need/want this procedure? To be clear, I am definitely against babies being born with genetic diseases, and I think our ability to screen for these diseases before conception is huge. But do we really need to raise children of our own genetic material so badly that we are willing to spend all this money and resources to get one? Don’t get me wrong, I want kids. And I want them to be of my own genetic material. But if I can’t have kids for some reason, I consider adoption to be a fantastic option. In fact, I might adopt just to adopt even after having a kid of my own. There are so many children in the system in desperate need of loving families, why do we need to go to such great lengths to make new ones just so that they’ll be related to us or so we can carry them in our own bodies?

Maybe my evolutionary drive just isn’t as strong as some people’s. After all, in terms of evolution the only ones who are considered successful are the ones who pass on as much of their DNA as possible, so in a way this drive makes sense. But at what point (if any) can we all agree it has gone too far?

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About Hannah Rosen

I am a PhD candidate at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. I am currently conducting research on color change in squid skin, but my real passion is making science accessible to those outside of the field so that everyone can love it as much as I do! Science is not just for the professionals. It is fun and something that everyone can and should enjoy. Deep down we are all science nerds, you just may not know it yet!

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