Heritable Consequences

When the mitochondria in an embryonic cell are replaced, all subsequent germ lines of that cell are altered as well (Aird, 2013). This means that the embryo’s children, and their children’s children, and all future generations of the family tree will inherit the transplanted mitochondrial DNA. Your vote has the potential to impact people that will live hundreds of years from now, who have inherited the manipulated mitochondria. Take a moment to reflect on the implications of your vote.


Imagine that your biological makeup contained pieces of DNA that had been manipulated by doctors and scientists several generations ago. You might feel betrayed or powerless with the knowledge that part of your DNA was not inherited naturally, but rather by means of genetic engineering. Although mitochondrial replacement is meant to cure disease, there is always a risk of uncertainty. This uncertainty is especially alarming when it comes to manipulating person’s genetic makeup, which is unalterable and will be passed on to the rest of the germline. If something goes wrong, there is no option to turn back.

One past instance of biological modification gone awry is the administering of Diethylstilbestrol, more commonly known as DES, in the 1930’s to 1970’s. DES is an estrogen drug that was prescribed to pregnant women in the United States in order to prevent miscarriages, avoid early births, and various other problems during pregnancy. Although the treatment had seemingly beneficial effects on the pregnant individuals, DES turned out to have harmful effects on the in utero babies. Long-term studies on large groups of women who were exposed to DES (both mothers and offspring) have found that health-risks associated with DES include rare vaginal cancers, breast cancer, immune system disorders, and reproductive tract abnormalities. (“DES History”) (Giusti, 1995). Could mitochondrial replacement present long-term harmful effects similar to DES mothers and babies that are unknown to us now?

{To hear more about DES first-hand from an affected daughter, click here.}

An potential “unknown” to consider in relation to mitochondrial replacement is the debate about whether or not mitochondria have a larger role in human biology than simply “powerhouses” of the cell. Some researchers believe that mitochondria actually have an intimate relationship with nuclear DNA, and can have a strong influence on phenotype. One study at UC Davis revealed that cytoplasmic DNA (including mitochondrial DNA) is significant to biological metabolism. Researchers concluded that the extent to which cytoplasmic genes affect phenotype is equal to, if not greater than, individual nuclear genes because of cytoplasmic gene involvement in metabolite production (Joseph, 2013). If mitochondria are more than merely “battery packs” of cells, and can actually affect biological phenotype, then the stakes become much higher when considering the dangers mitochondrial replacement. 

{To read more about the UC Davis study on cytoplasmic DNA, click here.}

Now that you have a better sense of the issues regarding the potential unknown future consequences of mitochondrial replacement, have you considered:

→ the possible negative effects of mitochondrial replacement

→the tale of the Precautionary Principle

→the lead-up to designer babies

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