The need for control is as strong in humans as the need for love and the need for an occupation. Reconciling our need for control with a world that insists on wrestling it from us lets existential crises of all kinds flourish, and flushes the great nebulous forces of conspiracy, paranoia and religion into the world. Let it be real or not: I need control. As the future moves towards us it promises us nothing in the way of love security or guaranteed occupation: but it does promise us greater control. There is no better example of humanity’s current, mid-evolutionary powers of control than the recent breakthroughs in mitochondrial donation. By the time you read this, the UK Government may well have ratified the call to take this from the purview of the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority and begin making it publicly accessible.

While Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels might have predicted Mars’ two moons, and while Jules Verne might have written of splashdown capsules, solar sails and electric submarines before any were even invented, none of these transmutations of science fiction into science fact have suggested that an active alteration in the very fabric of our society would result from them. Mitochondrial donation (henceforth referred to as MD), which does not seem to quite have a specific sci-fi precedent, looks as though it may do just that. On its most essential level, MD is simply one more very heartening advance for our society that accelerates through technology, towards a future in which our humankind is ever more capable of preventing the preventable. The virtues it affords us raise questions as to the future of human nature itself, and square us with certain ethical challenges.

Having a child is the ultimate assumption of responsibility; but being able to biologically determine that child’s very genetic nature, could challenge that mantle. What MD is not is a scheme by which to generate ‘designer babies’. It is, approached by any other route, simply an extension of existing IVF technologies and a vital one at that in negating the otherwise incurable dangers of mitochondrial diseases that affect some 6,500 newborns every year. By one of two techniques, maternal spindle transfer and pronuclear transfer, embryonic mitochondria can be modified and cleansed of mutations that provoke cell defects in the lungs, kidneys, brain and heart. Once modified, an embryo is implanted in the womb of the mother as in regular IVF procedures, and along one line of heritability a mitochondrial defect is wiped out forever. The embryo will share nuclear DNA from its parents (99.9 per cent), and mitochondrial DNA from a third contributor (0.1 per cent), giving rise to the frustrating catchphrase under which this breakthrough is now categorised: the three-parent baby.

The two techniques differ markedly from each other. Pro-nuclear transfer (PNT) involves the creation of two embryos, one to act as donor and one as a recipient. This is the method’s largest ethical millstone. Though it is not a vital part of the process, and in fact the maternal spindle transfer has been mooted as more viable anyway, this aspect of MD does raise some unsettling questions. Despite the good it may do, this one means of mitochondrial donation involves playing with life itself, as one embryo is a life form generated for a brief purpose to serve the other.

Moving away from moral uncertainties, there is a good deal of untested practical ground around MD. The interactions between nuclear and mitochondrial DNA in terms of their composing a genome have not yet been fully mapped out. However unlikely it seems, we don’t know what potential effects this untested interaction could have in determining specific personal qualities and characteristics of the developing ‘three-parent’ embryo.

These are only the first possibilities open to us with the advent of this technology. While, for the moment, MD remains a speculative therapy more or less consigned to the scientific body that invented it; were it to become widely available as a reproductive treatment, more ethical ambiguities come into play.

What does this mean for the future of genetic engineering? What unaccounted for effects might be passed to the first babies conceived in this way, and how might they cope in later life? After all, MD has come about because of gene defects being difficult to predict, and there’s no guarantee that the process of modification would not give way to newer ones. MD also represents a first, as an early entry, in humanity’s attempts at genetic self-control: the first step surely on a longer way. Its becoming a reality provokes a question that itself provokes as much awe as anxiety: can we really modify our nature, and to what end?

This all suggests a new power is arriving at the feet of the human race. As ever with such advances in technology the arrival of mitochondrial donation yields just as many questions as it answers. It is but one way in which humans are becoming masters of their own nature to a degree that is without precedent, except perhaps in the texts of the sci-fi masters. Much of the greatest science fiction deals with an impasse between human capability and human reason – the people’s power to understand all the implications of the responsibilities put to them. With the advent of mitochondrial donation, of new possibilities in natal engineering, we may be about to enter the greatest sci-fi work of all.

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