Today, the UK’s House of Commons approved a law that would set a regulatory framework for an in vitro fertilization procedure that would create an embryo that contains DNA from three individuals. The procedure is designed to avoid having children inherit any one of a number of severe metabolic disorders that are caused by defects in the genome of the mitochondria.
Mitochondria are small compartments in the cell that do most of the work of converting molecules like sugars and fats into ATP, which the cell uses to power most of its basic functions. Mitochondria are the evolutionary descendants of bacteria that became trapped within eukaryotic cells like our own, and they still maintain a number of essential genes in a small genome. The mitochondria, along with their genome, are provided to new embryos in the egg. Thus, any genetic defects in the mitochondrial genome are passed down directly from a mother to all her offspring.
The National Institutes of Health has a list of some of the disorders that are inherited with the mitochondrial genome. These include several forms of deafness, neuro-muscular disorders, and diseases that cause blindness, among others.
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