Children born following mitochondria replacement will have inherited nuclear DNA from their parents and mitochondrial DNA from a donor. This is a first for medical science and it raises the question of whether it will impact on the future child’s sense of identity or on our concepts of parenthood.
Click on the video below to hear a range of views on this issue.
The opinions in these videos are not necessarily those of the HFEA but are a sample of a wider range of views on this topic
Mitochondrial DNA, which comprises a very small proportion of total DNA, is thought only to play a role in energy production. Genes are long interlinked chains of our nuclear DNA. It is our genes, together with environmental factors, that shape our physical characteristics and are therefore important to identity. Given this, a mitochondria donor might be thought to be similar to a bone marrow or blood donor. Donors could be seen as contributing to the recipient’s health and wellbeing while not influencing the recipient’s sense of identity.
An alternative view is that although mitochondrial DNA comprises a very small portion of genes, this is still vital to our genetic makeup. After all, mitochondria can have a devastating effect on health if they do not function normally. Also, as mitochondria are passed down through generations they can be used to trace maternal ancestry.
A further view is that a person’s sense of identity is affected by the experience of illness as much as by their genes. Therefore, by preventing mitochondrial disease these techniques will affect a child’s identity in an positive way.
The questions around the impact of genes on identity, both in terms of genetic makeup and what makes someone who they are, may be a source of confusion for the future child.
Debates about identity are long running – is it a person’s genetics or their upbringing which determines who they are? Or a mixture of both? Mitochondria are thought only to play a role in energy production and, are not responsible for any personal characteristics or traits. But what affect is mitochondria replacement likely to have on a person’s sense of self?
It may be helpful to look at how donor-conceived children (those born as a result of egg or sperm donation) relate to their donor origins. Research suggests that donor conceived children who learn about their origins early in life are at ease with how they were conceived, and donor conception does not negatively affect their sense of identity. However, donor conceived people who discover their background later in life can become very distressed, finding the knowledge confusing to their sense of who they are and how they relate to their parents.