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Ethics of modifying the mitochondrial genome


Recent preclinical studies have shown the feasibility of specific variants of nuclear transfer to prevent mitochondrial DNA disorders. Nuclear transfer could be a valuable reproductive option for carriers of mitochondrial mutations. A clinical application of nuclear transfer, however, would entail germ-line modification, more specifically a germ-line modification of the mitochondrial genome. One of the most prominent objections against germ-line modification is the fear that it would become possible to alter ‘essential characteristics’ of a future person, thereby possibly violating the child's right to an open future. As only the nuclear DNA would contain the ingredients for individual characteristics, modification of the mtDNA is often considered less controversial than modification of the nuclear DNA. This paper discusses the tenability of this dichotomy. After having clarified the concept of germ-line modification, it argues that modification of the mtDNA is not substantively different from modification of the nuclear DNA in terms of its effects on the identity of the future person. Subsequently the paper assesses how this conclusion affects the moral evaluation of nuclear transfer to prevent mtDNA disorders. It concludes that the moral acceptability of germ-line modification does not depend on whether it alters the identity of the future child—all germ-line modifications do—but on whether it safeguards the child's right to an open future. If nuclear transfer to prevent mtDNA disorders becomes safe and effective, then dismissing it because it involves germ-line modification is unjustified.

  • Embryos and fetuses
  • gene therapy/transfer
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