Three-parent embryos: What should biblical creationists think?
Published: 7 March 2015 (GMT+10)
The UK has recently approved the creation of three-parent embryos by nuclear transfer of the mother’s egg to a donor egg that has had its nucleus removed. This is hailed as a possible solution that would allow women with mitochondrial diseases to have healthy biological children, but it is something that Christians should be concerned about because of the risks involved.
As we have often pointed out, life contains encyclopedic amounts of genetic information, stored on the ‘message molecule’ DNA. In eukaryotes—organisms more complex than bacteria—the vast majority of this information is in the cell nucleus. The human genome has about three gigabytes of information.2
However, eukaryotes also have cell organelles called mitochondria, which are the power plants of the cell. They generate the ‘energy currency of life’, ATP, using the world’s tiniest motor, ATP synthase.3 The mitochondria have their own DNA (mtDNA), comprising about 0.2% of the total genome.
Humans seem to be designed4 to inherit mtDNA from the mother’s line only; it seems that the sperm cells can’t pass it on, although there is some debate about this.5,6,7 This means that only mothers will pass on any existing mtDNA disease—mitochondrial diseases occur with a frequency of 1:200, while severe mitochondrial diseases occur with a frequency of only 1:8,500.
Would three-parent embryo solve maternal mtDNA problems?
If a mother has healthy nuclear DNA but diseased mtDNA, is there a possible way of passing on just the healthy DNA using the healthy mtDNA of another mother? Since the cytoplasm of the cell has many mitochondria, the only way would be to isolate the nuclear DNA of the diseased egg and transplant it to a healthy donor egg. There are two proposed procedures:
- Pronuclear transfer, PNT, where the nucleus from the diseased mother’s zygote (fertilized egg) is removed and inserted into the donor’s enucleated zygote, i.e. with its own nucleus removed. This is rather like the procedure to produce Dolly the sheep clone.8 One living zygote is absolutely destroyed. Its ‘body’ is then used to house the genetic material from another zygote, whose ‘body’ is discarded, all in order to make a third zygote from parts of the first two. Human individual life, both scientifically and biblically, begins at conception (fertilization) when the DNA from two parents comes together to make a new human. Removal of one fertilized cell nucleus destroys that human life, and removal of the second fertilized cell nucleus puts the individual at great risk. But this also brings up questions about where human life resides and in one sense two little zygotes are sacrificed in order to create a third.
- Maternal Spindle Transfer, MST, where the mother’s DNA is placed into an enucleated donor egg. Thus two unfertilized eggs are used in this process. The repaired egg is then utilised, in the manner of IVF, for fertilization by the intended father’s sperm. This process is also called ST,or spindle-chromosomal complex transfer.9 Since the eggs are unfertilized, a new human individual life has not yet begun.
Alleviating the Curse?
CMI has long pointed out that Jesus’ blessings that He dispensed to people while He was walking the earth included curing disease and disabilities, i.e. alleviating the effects of the Curse. So medical procedures that do the same are part of a Christian’s calling—with the proviso that they violate none of God’s commandments. Thus, as explained above, the first procedure can be categorically rejected, since it commits murder.
The second procedure destroys no human individual life, so we do not have a moral problem with the genetic result of this second procedure. They are not making anything abnormal, and there is no threat of creating a ‘superhuman’, etc. It might be creepy to consider, at first, but the result is nothing special. Many would argue that the donated egg/embryo is akin to tissue transplant, and could be classified as ‘organ donation’, since no nuclear DNA from the donor is utilized. However, some worry that this is the beginning of a slippery slope toward ‘volitional evolution’ that involves germ-line intervention for genetic enhancement or genetic therapy.10 Is this about saving babies or ‘playing God’?
A key difference between humans and animals is that humans are made in the image of God—this image was broken but not lost at the Fall.11 God gave mankind dominion over the rest of creation, but never over fellow humans (Genesis 1:26–28). Human cloning12 or embryonic stem cell research13 and these experiments would be treating tiny newly conceived humans as objects of dominion instead of fellow divine images.
An additional problem with this is that it involves the commoditization of children (and women! surrogacy, egg donation, etc). Many reproductive technologies, while not necessarily immoral in and of themselves, become immoral because their consequences lead to the devaluation and even destruction of human life. Only in a world where children’s lives are already radically devalued before birth could people consider such a risky procedure as nuclear transfer, although the world already has so many children who need loving parents.
For instance, a recent study used 106 human eggs that had been donated for research. Sixty five oocytes were selected for MST, referred to as ST in this study. Thirty three oocytes were used as controls, that is, were not subjected to any changes. But after the spindle transfer, the oocytes were fertilized—i.e., new human beings were created in the study. Fertilization rates were the same in both the ST group and the control group, around 73% and 75%, respectively. However, there was a significantly higher abnormal fertilization in the ST group; up to 52% of the ST zygotes had evidence of abnormality. The remaining ST zygotes developed normally and had normal mtDNA from the donor mother. Thus, numerous zygotes were created, but only half were normal.14
The major and insurmountable issues with this technology are the creation and destruction of human embryos. Selection of ‘disease-free’ embryos occurs, but half of the embryos created are discarded, being deemed unsuitable. What happens to those embryos that fail to develop fully? And a significant number of them will! What would prevent a doctor from simply flushing the failed experiment down the drain? Or, what would prevent selective abortion on a baby that failed to develop normally? The human embryo is reduced to a mere commodity. This frontier in biotechnology is darkened by the spectre of eugenics or coercively selective breeding of humans,15 founded and led by Darwin’s cousin and sons.
God’s model for the family
As Jesus said, God created man as “male and female” “from the beginning of creation”, and thus defined a marriage as a man and a woman (Mark 10:6–9).16 And children are meant to come biologically from a husband and wife—parents each pass on half their genome to their children.
Nuclear transfer is morally problematic because instead of two genetic parents, there are really three, albeit one who contributed a very small part of the genome. In one sense, one might legitimately ask, “Can we stand in the place of God?” No, of course not. In another sense, one might ask, “Is human society mature enough to address the moral implications of what we are now able to do?” No, it is not.
A totally ethical alternative: adoption
Adoption is a totally different matter. And all of us know couples that are unable to have children. This is a sad reality for many. Yet, if there is a genetic or physical situation that prevents children, there are options that do not include the destruction of human life. Adoption sends a beautiful and clear message to the world that love transcends biological relationships—and it is a picture of the Gospel. Ideally, children should be raised by their biological parents, but when that is not possible, they should be raised by an adoptive mother and father who are married to each other. There is ample biblical precedent for adoption; Jesus was raised and likely taught his carpentry trade by His adoptive father Joseph, the husband of His biological mother Mary.
Indeed, we are loved by Christ, even though we certainly do not deserve that love (Romans 5:8). Yet, Christ has adopted us (Ephesians 1:5) anyway, and a result, all Christians become “sons of God” by adoption (Galatians 3:26).17 Thus adoption is at the heart of the Gospel.
One overarching problem with these techniques is unavoidable severe damage. When the nucleus is ripped out of a cell and replaced with a nucleus ripped out of another cell, it causes extensive damage that must be repaired. This is not a normal thing for the cell to experience.
The damage is proportionately much larger than in any amputation or organ removal. If the three-parent baby procedure were 100% safe, then we would have fewer objections. Yet, it is demonstrably not safe in the short term and there are serious concerns about safety in the long term. Also, in an organ transplant, the recipient is able to consent (as well as the donor, but this is often after death, with prior consent), knowing the side effects, risks, etc. Conversely, a child conceived in this manner by definition cannot consent.
Such severe damage must use a significant amount of cellular resources to fix. After fertilization, many embryos will not survive the damage. It is not a zero-sum game. We will be hurting people.
Thus, the argument against the three-parent baby is a pro-life argument based on Christian ethics and the oft-quoted maxim, “First do no harm”. In most IVF procedures today, thousands of embryos are created, only to sit in a freezer until they expire (however, as we have stated previously, “there seems nothing wrong with an IVF treatment that conceives only those embryos that will be implanted,”18 but see the statement about the increased genetic risks of IVF in the following section). With this new procedure, potentially many more embryos will have to be created. Waste is a byproduct of this type of research, but we are talking about a ‘waste’ of human life.
Another glaring scientific problem is the neglect of epigenetics,19 that mysterious and fickle realm of heritable traits that are not controlled by the DNA sequence per se. A very important point is that the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA are not independent, but they interact significantly with each other. Mitochondrial function is disrupted without this communication.20,21 Therefore the effects of these epigenomic alterations could impact the embryo’s ability to coordinate its DNA expression.
This has certainly been noted in mice.22 On the other hand, it is speculated elsewhere that nuclear-mtDNA interactions are constant within species, based on observational data.23 Nevertheless, a recent review addresses this issue and states that the donor mtDNA is faced with a completely unknown nuclear DNA “and the implications of this combination are currently largely unexplored.”24 Mutation rates in mtDNA are about 10 times higher than the rate in nuclear DNA.25 It is therefore worrying that should a de novo pathological mutation occur in the donor mtDNA, it may gain a proliferative advantage over the non-mutated donor mtDNA. There has been evidence for this in animal models “with demonstrable deleterious effects.24”
Also, normal development occurs in a very special place, with controlled temperature, salinity, etc. The test tube is not like this, although it could conceivably be made to be so. Children born after IVF treatment have a significantly greater-than-average risk of developing with a suite of characteristic genetic and developmental defects: “Children conceived with assisted reproductive technology (ART), for example IVF, have about twice the risk of having a major birth defect or low birth weight than children conceived naturally, Australian and US studies show.”26 This is due to the stress on the egg and sperm as they are manipulated in a non-natural environment. This new procedure is much more stressful as it involves ripping out the nucleus of an egg and replacing it with another that has, in turn, been ripped out of its cell.
Considering the complexity of the epigenome (let alone the extra levels of complexity and codes only now being elucidated in the genome), there is serious concern about applying this technology to humans. It may not be as ethically clear-cut as the wrongness of destroying human embryos intentionally, but it’s fraught with uncertainties.
Baby Steps video from American Life League: Using 4D ultrasounds, the film shows the baby in the womb from 8 weeks through to birth.
The precedent of cloning
Just as Ian Wilmut and colleagues didn’t fully anticipate the problems that Dolly the sheep and her fellow clones would develop (and he’s now moved away from his own work), there is no way these researchers can guarantee that all kinds of health defects will not surface in people produced by this technology, perhaps decades into life. For one thing, Dolly inherited ‘aged’ chromosomes, so had half the lifespan of a normal sheep.
Also, a very important consideration is that Dolly required over 200 unsuccessful tries, which if translated into human cloning, would mean hundreds of tiny humans generated then destroyed. It’s hard to imagine that three-parent embryo technology could be developed without lots of ‘failures’ in the form of disposable human beings.
This technology is not legal in continental Europe and is not allowed by the UN for use in humans. Only in the UK has a drive for changes to legislation occurred, however, the safety of these procedures is not known.
There are also practical legal issues. How would the donor fit into the picture? Would they have a claim to custody, visitation, etc.? How would the children relate to the donor? There would be a host of complications affecting the relationships, possible financial arrangements, etc. that are begging for heartache and possibly lawsuits. Also, the donors are contributing much more than just a cell membrane and mitochondria. They are also contributing subcellular compartments and machinery, and epigenetic factors that will potentially impact or control the DNA of the embryo.
Because of these moral, ethical, philosophical, religious, and scientific concerns, we cannot support this technology. As technology progresses, we reserve the right to reassess our position, but as of the time of writing we cannot sanction it due to the risk to human life.
References and notes
- We acknowledge much valuable information provided by medical doctor Kathy Wallace of South Australia. Return to text.
- For simplicity, we are treating each DNA ‘letter’ as a ‘byte’ of information, which is ‘in the right ball park’: the human genome has over 3 billion base pairs. In reality, since there are four possibilities at each locus, so it could store two bits of information per letter. Return to text.
- Thomas, B., ATP synthase: majestic molecular machine made by a mastermind, Creation 31(4):21–23, 2009; creation.com/atp-synthase. Return to text.
- The reason for the design is that it makes it more likely that all copies of mtDNA in a cell will be identical (homoplasmy). When copies are different (heteroplasmy), severe diseases are more likely, but fortunately heteroplasmy is rare. See Guo, Y., et al.,Very low-level heteroplasmy mtDNA Variations are inherited in humans, Journal of Genetics and Genomics 40(12):607–615, 20 December 2013 | doi:10.1016/j.jgg.2013.10.003. Return to text.
- See discussion in Carter, R.W., The Neandertal mitochondrial genome does not support evolution, J. Creation 23(1):40–43, April 2009; creation.com/neandertal-mito. Return to text.
- It’s notable that we can trace all human mitochondrial DNA to a single ancestor, which even evolutionists call Mitochondrial Eve. See Wieland, C., Mitochondrial Eve and biblical Eve are looking good: criticism of young age is premature, J. Creation 19(1):57–59, 2005; creation.com/eve3. Return to text.
- There are three main mtDNA lineages all around the world, consistent with our descent from Noah’s three daughters-in-law. Carter, R.W., The Neutral Model of evolution and recent African origins, J. Creation 23(1):70–77, 2009; creation.com/african-origins. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Hello Dolly! Creation 19(3):23, June 1997; creation.com/hello-dolly. Return to text.
- Tachibana, M., et al., Mitochondrial gene replacement in primate offspring and embryonic stem cells, Nature 461(7262):367–372, 17 September 2009 | doi:10.1038/nature08368. Return to text.
- Baylis, F., Ethical objections to mitochondrial replacement, impactethics.ca, 2 June 2013; noveltechethics.ca/staff/66. Return to text.
- Cosner, L., Broken images, Creation 34(4):46–48; creation.com/broken-images. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Legalized Cloning in Australia: What are the issues? 15 December 2006; creation.com/ausclone. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Stem cells and Genesis, J. Creation 15(3):19–26, 2001; creation.com/stem-cells, last update 2014. Return to text.
- Reinhardt, K., et al., Medicine. Mitochondrial replacement, evolution, and the clinic, Science 341(6152):1345–1346, 20 September 2013 | doi:10.1126/science.1237146. Return to text.
- Grigg, R., Eugenics … death of the defenceless: The legacy of Darwin’s cousin Galton, Creation 28(1):18–22, 2005; creation.com/eugenics. Return to text.
- ‘From the beginning of creation’—what did Jesus mean? There’s no getting around Jesus’ teaching on the age of the earth, creation.com/from-the-beginning, 25 November 2014. Return to text.
- For an explanation of why the translation “sons” is important, see Cosner, L., The ‘gender neutral’ Bible: Emasculating Scripture for political correctness, creation.com/gender, 10 September 2009. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Surrogate Mothering and IVF: are they biblical? 13 January 2007; creation.com/ivf. Return to text.
- White, D., The Genetic Puppeteer, Creation 30(2):42–44, 2008; creation.com/puppet. Return to text.
- Johnson, K.R., et al., A nuclear-mitochondrial DNA interaction affecting hearing impairment in mice, Nature Genetics 27(2):191–194, February 2001 | doi:10.1038/84831. Return to text.
- Reinhardt et al., Ref. . Return to text.
- Nagao, Y., Decreased physical performance of congenic mice with mismatch between the nuclear and the mitochondrial genome, Genes & Genetic Systems 73(1):21–7, February 1998 | doi:10.1266/ggs.73.21. Return to text.
- Tachibana et al. Towards germline gene therapy of inherited mitochondrial diseases, Nature 493(7434):627–631, 31 January 2013 | doi:10.1038/nature11647. Return to text.
- Burgstaller, J.P., et al., Mitochondrial DNA disease and developmental implications for reproductive strategies, Molecular Human Reproduction 21(1):11–22, January 2015 | doi:10.1093/molehr/gau090. Return to text.
- Rebolledo-Jaramillo, B., et al., Maternal age effect and severe germ-line bottleneck in the inheritance of human mitochondrial DNA, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 111(43):15474–15479, 28 October 2014 | doi:10.1073/pnas.1409328111. Return to text.
- IVF Issues—Facts, figures, ethical and emotional issues, fertilitycare.net, accessed 6 February 2015. Return to text.