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You may have heard about the ‘three-parent baby’ issue that’s been in the news recently. Here’s what’s up.
Brief biology refresher: every cell contains two sets of DNA, the nuclear DNA and the mtDNA. mtDNA is found in a structure called mitochondria. People only inherit mtDNA from their mother because when an egg is fertilised by a sperm, the mitocondia from the sperm is discarded, while the mitocondria from the egg is kept and replicated with every cell divison. This means that damage to a mother’s mtDNA can lead to debilitating, incurable conditions in her children, such as diabetes, muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s.
As of 3 February, the UK has become the first country to legalise a procedure known as ‘three-parent IVF’. Damaged mtDNA is swapped out with healthy mtDNA from a donor prior to incubation, sparing the resulting child from inheriting life-threatening conditions. The donor becomes the ‘third parent’ by contributing the genetic material in their mtDNA to the child.
It is currently unlikely that the procedure will be legalised in New Zealand, as ethical issues such as the disclosure of mtDNA donor identities have yet to be worked out. The first British three-parent babies will be due in 2016.