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Babies with Three Parents: Preventing the Inheritance of Genetic Diseases

Updated on May 28, 2017


Some rare diseases that cause muscular dystrophy, loss of movement control, liver failure, heart complications, and even death can be traced back to a mother’s oocyte, or egg. Usually these diseases result from faulty mitochondrial DNA in an egg before fertilization even occurs, however with modern technology and assisted reproductive technologies it is possible not only to determine if a woman’s child will have such diseases, but also prevent them. A new process that involves three-parent embryos has been able to allow parents to give birth to healthy babies despite having malfunctioning mitochondrial DNA. However, this technology is highly controversial for obvious reasons, three-parents versus the traditional two parent family, and many are concerned for future generations.

The more common and less complicated technique of replacing mitochondrial DNA.
The more common and less complicated technique of replacing mitochondrial DNA. | Source

What are Three Parent Embryos?

Three parent embryos are the product of a new IVF, in vitro fertilization, which involves the eggs from a woman who has malfunctioning mitochondrial DNA, a woman with normal mitochondrial DNA, and the sperm from one male. There are then two way for create three-parent embryo, both of which involve transferring DNA. The first method consists of removing the nuclear DNA from the intended mother’s egg and then transplanted into a donor egg that has healthy mitochondrial DNA. The egg is then fertilized with a collection of the intended father’s sperm, and once it divides and becomes an embryo it is implanted into the intended mother’s uterus. The second method consists of the intended mother’s egg being fertilized with the father’s sperm, then having the nuclear DNA, which now consists of both parents’ DNA, removed and inserted into a donor’s egg that has healthy mitochondrial DNA[1]. The embryo is then inserted into the mother’s uterus the same as the first method as well as normal IVF treatments. Because the child would technically have DNA from three parents, even though mitochondrial DNA is less than 0.054 percent of a person’s total DNA, the child would have three biological parents.

How Does It Work?

The mitochondrial DNA from the donor egg is removed and implanted in the intended mother's egg prior to fertilization.
The mitochondrial DNA from the donor egg is removed and implanted in the intended mother's egg prior to fertilization. | Source
Both eggs are fertilized in vitro, then the nucleus from the parents' fertilized embyro is removed and replaces the donor embryo's nucleus leaving healthy mitochondrial DNA with the parent's nuclear DNA.
Both eggs are fertilized in vitro, then the nucleus from the parents' fertilized embyro is removed and replaces the donor embryo's nucleus leaving healthy mitochondrial DNA with the parent's nuclear DNA. | Source

Controversy and Ethnic Dilemas

The controversy surrounding the new three-parent embryos have to do with the question of what this technology leads to rather than the concern of a child being biologically related to three parents. While there are some who oppose three parent families because it challenges the traditional two parent model, they are the minority in the controversies. The main concerns are the safety factor, if tampering with DNA will cause genetic mutations, and if this kind of technology will lead to parents being able to design their own children. The first concern comes from scientists’ fears that DNA can be harmed during the transfer, including mito-nuclear mismatch[2]. By transferring mitochondrial DNA, the genetic information passed on through generations is altered; some of that DNA is not from the intended parents. In opposition to this concern, many advocates claim that this does not cross the line due to the fact that the percentage of DNA being transferred is so small, and that the phenotype of the child will not be impacted. There has also been no evidence that transferring mitochondrial DNA can cause or accelerate any mutations, yet scientist still urge parents to research their donor’s family history in case of adult diseases that may become present later in the child’s life[3].

The second and largest concern of three-parent embryos and mitochondrial DNA transferring is that it may be a slippery slope to parents being able to design their future children. Many believe that with the technology to transfer DNA it will not be too long until parents and doctors would be able to choose certain characteristics they want their child to have. However, some scientists say that this concern is always present whenever new technologies are introduced, and that limits can be placed on procedures and research. As for now, the technology only exists to allow parents to have biological children without putting them at risk for life threatening diseases[4]. As it has been mentioned before, the DNA found in the mitochondria has nothing to do with the phenotype of the child, and therefore would have no effect on the child’s physical, mental, or intellectual characteristics that many are concerned may be tampered with in order to have a child with certain desirable characteristic and traits.

Technology for the Child's health

I believe that this technology is an amazing advancement in medicine and the ability for parents to have biological children. While there are the medical concerns about possible DNA damage during the transfer, I believe that it is a necessary, although very small, risk in order to have a child who will not have a life threatening disease such as muscular dystrophy. In the ethical dilemma about how far this kind of technology will go until parents are able to design their own children, I believe that there is much more research that would need to be done. Mitochondrial DNA transfers are purely for the health of a child and allowing parents to have a healthy, biological child. Lastly, the concern about the child having three biological parents should not be that much of an issue since we currently have technologies that allow intended parents to have a child from a biological donor. Although those children are only biologically related to two parents, the premises is the same; a donor voluntarily donated their genetic information to allow another couple to have a child. If there is any concern between the parents, if the donor is not anonymous, then that is to be handled between the parents before the procedure takes place. There should be no distinction between a mitochondrial DNA donor, a gamete donor, or a surrogate; they all donated their genetic information and/or parts of their body in order for another couple to have a child.


In conclusion, the advancement in medical technologies that now allow for mitochondrial DNA transfer to create three-parent embryos is an amazing advancement that gives hope to couples wanting to have biological children. While there are some controversies regarding the parents of the child, the safety of the procedure, and what technologies will this lead to, overall this technology is an advancement that will change the lives of parents as well as save the lives of potential children. The donor in the three parent embryo is just that – a donor. The slippery slope that this will lead to designer babies is absurd paranoia, and the unproven health risks associated with the procedure are necessary risks to help the lives of both child and parents.

What do you think?

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[1] Paddock, Catherine. "Three-parent Embryos Approved in UK." Medical News Today. N.p., 4 Feb. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <>.

[2] "CGS : 3-Person IVF." CGS : 3-Person IVF. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2016. <>.

[3] "Three Parent Babies: Parent #3's Impact May Go beyond Mitochondria | Genetic Literacy Project." Genetic Literacy Project. N.p., 02 June 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2016. <>.

[4] Ramsey, Lydia. "What 3-Parent Babies Mean For The Future Of Reproductive Medicine." Popular Science. N.p., 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <>.


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