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Three-parent babies are here
Every human baby has two genetic parents: the baby's father and mother. In that sense, every baby is a two-parent baby. However, there can be 'three-parent babies' as well, and they will be a reality next year in Britain, the first country in the world to have allowed the creation of such babies.
The lower house of the British Parliament, House of Commons, voted in favor of the draft legislation "Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations 2015" on February 3, 2015, and the upper house, House of Lords, endorsed the bill on February 24, and the law will come into force from October 29, 2015.

What necessitated this landmark legislation is the fact that about one in 200 children in the UK are affected by mitochondrial diseases. Mitochondria are tiny compartments inside nearly every cell of the body and contain their own set of DNA. Mitochondria contain enzymes which they use for producing energy for the cells.

During conception, when a sperm fertilizes an egg, the man's mitochondria dissolve, however, the woman's mitochondria remain intact, and thus only the woman passes on her mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to her baby. However, if the woman happens to have a defective mtDNA, it gets passed on to the baby, affecting it for life.

A child born with the defective mtDNA inherited from its mother is vulnerable, in later life, to serious and life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, stroke, cardiac defects, liver failure, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, and blindness.

The only cure for mitochondrial disorder is to replace the defective mtDNA of the mother with a healthy one from a female donor, and the afore-mentioned landmark legislation seeks to do just that, i.e. to ensure that babies do not inherit the defective mtDNA from their mothers.

There are two ways in which the defective mtDNA of a mother is replaced with a healthy one from a donor. In the first method which uses the IVF technique, the nucleus that contains the genetic information is removed from the mother's unfertilized egg, leaving out the defective mitochondria. Then this nucleus is placed in the female donor's unfertilized egg, whose nucleic DNA has already been removed. Now this egg has the mother's genetic material and the donor's healthy mitochondria and is fertilized with the father's sperm, and the resultant embryo is a healthy one.

In the second method, both the mother's egg and the donor's egg are fertilized- the mother's with the father's sperm, and the donor's egg with a donor's sperm. Then the pronuclei of the mother-father embryo and donor embryo are removed, and the mother-father pronuclei are added to the donor embryo (minus its pronuclei) and implanted in the mother's womb.

The baby thus born would possess genes from three adults - the genetic information inherited from its father and mother, and the healthy mitochondria it received from the female donor - and is in effect a three-parent baby. However, the donated mtDNA would form only about 0.1 per cent of the baby's genes and would in no way influence inherited traits like eye/hair colour, height, and so on, which are anyway determined by the nuclear DNA from the parents. Importantly, the baby would be able to pass on its modified healthy gene to succeeding generations, thus effectively rooting out the mitochondrial diseases from the family.

Though the donor contributes the healthy mtDNA to the child, she will have no legal rights over the child born using the said technique. The child can have access to limited, non-identifying information about the donor and vice versa.

As did many scientific innovations before, the concept of mitochondrial donation too faces opposition from different groups. While the religious groups accuse the scientists of playing god, others fear that the whole thing could usher in an era of designer babies.

Even within the scientific community there are dissenting voices and some aver that the workings of mitochondria should be better understood before procedures are legalised. There is also the fear that the children thus born could develop hitherto unknown traits, perhaps ending up as Frankenstein's monsters.

Such fears and reservations aside, the fact remains that the three-parent baby/mitochondrial donation concept would be a boon to many affected families, especially given that one in every 10,000 human beings across the world suffers from inherited mitochondrial disorder and the attendant health problems.

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