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A controversial IVF technique that would create babies using the gametes of three separate people — two women and a man — may be a step closer to being realized following the publication of a UK regulating agency's advice. What are the implications?

Few things in life are simple, but for now one fact holds true for every person on the planet — everyone has two biological parents, one male and one female. A revolutionary new IVF technique dubbed “three-parent IVF” could soon change that.

Three-parent IVF seeks to combat certain rare genetic diseases by creating children from with the help of a mitochondrial donor. These children would have three biological parents, two of which would be female.

You may have seen mentions of three-parent IVF circulating around the internet. But what exactly does this new IVF technique involve, what are the ethical concerns, and will this technique really usher in a new era in human reproduction?

What Three-Parent IVF Is

Three-parent IVF, also called mitochondrial replacement, has been in the news again because a British regulating body presented its advice to the UK government last month. Before we can discuss what that advice entails, you'll need to know just what this controversial new IVF technique actually is. This is perhaps best accomplished through a glossary of terms that are relevant to the debate, and the technique.


Mitochondria are tiny organelles that power every cell in the body, with the exception of red blood cells. Mitochondria covert the energy of food in order to power many functions within the cell. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from mothers only — they are created from the outer shell of an egg cell. The mother's genetic material is contained within the nucleus of the egg cell, which then joins with a sperm cell to complete a new baby's genetic information. Mitochondrial DNA does not affect the appearance or personality of a person, but can hold the key to certain genetic diseases.

Mitochondrial Disease

Mitochondrial diseases are caused by a failure of the mitochondria. Cells receive less energy, and the affected cell can be damaged or die. Different mitochondrial diseases can affect almost all important bodily functions — heart, brain, liver, kidney, skeletal muscles, respiratory system and hormone function.

Mitochondrial diseases can be devastating. Imagine muscle weakness and pain, poor growth, loss of motor control, gastrointestinal problems, swallowing difficulties, seizures, diabetes, liver disease, cardiac disease, and more. In some cases, babies born with mitochondrial disease barely survive birth. Mitochondrial diseases are no joke, and finding a cure could save many families a lot of pain in the future.

Three-Parent IVF

Currently, every single person was created from a sperm cell and an egg cell — so every person has a single biological mother, and a single biological father. Mitochondrial DNA is only inherited from the mother, and that's where three-parent IVF comes in.

This technique would create an embryo from the biological mother and father. The nucleus, containing the parents' genetic material, would then be removed from the original egg and transplanted into an egg from a donor. This donor egg would have its nucleus removed, leaving the membrane, cytoplasm and mitochondria — ready to receive the desired nuclear DNA. The result would be a baby without mitochondrial disease, created from three separate people. In a similar but alternative procedure, discarded IVF embryos from other couples could be used instead of fresh donor eggs to obtain the donor mitochondria. 

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