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Saturday, 5 May, 2001, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Q&A: GM babies

The news that scientists have altered a baby's genetic make-up during fertility treatment has been criticised as unethical. BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse examines the controversy over genetically altered humans.

Q: Why are there concerns about the extra DNA?

A: The additional DNA that the children have is so-called mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA resides outside the cell's nucleus where the vast majority of DNA is found.

Scientists do not know very much about mitochondrial DNA. They know it is involved in energy production for the cell but they think it may have many other unknown functions. They also know little about the interaction of mitochondrial DNA and DNA inside the nucleus. Because of this, researchers cannot say that the children with the additional mitochondrial DNA will not suffer any long-term harmful effects. They will have to be monitored.

Q: Will the DNA have an impact on human personality?

A: Almost certainly not from the additional genetic material, but if the children know they are special in this way that may have psychological effects.

Q: What are the benefits of using this technique?

A: Many families suffer from certain diseases of mitochondrial DNA resulting in infertility or afflicted children. It is hoped that this kind of research will be able to alleviate infertility and allow the birth of healthy children.

Q: Should this sort of research be under some kind of government control?

A: In the United States, where this latest work was carried out, there is no overall regulation. The US Government has rules and regulations banning this type of work by scientists using government money. But scientists using private money, as in this case, are at present not covered by those restrictions. That may change.

Q: Are scientists playing God by tinkering with the make-up of humans?

A: Some have argued that all medicine, that is the treatment and curing of diseases, is playing God in the sense that mankind is intervening with Nature. But we do not generally think we are playing God when we take a headache pill.

With the power of modern genetics and its ever faster pace of research we now have the ability to alter the genes that comprise the very blueprint of life. Some believe that this fundamental understanding promises new therapies for alleviating human suffering. Others believe that we should leave it well alone. There is no simple answer to this.

Many scientists who are religious say that God gave them their intelligence to devise ways to help those who suffer. Philosophically what emerges from such controversial research is that the decision to carry out such work should be made by society as a whole and not by scientists or religions because it involves the genes that we all share.

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See also:

05 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Concern over GM babies
04 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Genetically altered babies born
01 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Long road to inheritance
27 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Genetic revolution work begins
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