Mitochondrial Replacement: The Issue isn’t Mitochondria

My parents sent me a link today and it really got me thinking. It was about the meeting the FDA is having regarding whether or not to allow human trials for mitochondrial replacement. The U.K. is working on drafting regulations that would be put to a vote in 2015. I’m not sure how fast things would happen in the United States if the FDA ruled favorably this week, but this would be substantial news. I thought some of the wording seemed off in the link they sent, but when I found a link from a local news site, they were using the same AP piece from a health writer who uses “nucleus DNA” and not “nuclear DNA.” I thought perhaps the terminology had changed since my undergraduate degree in genetics, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least in general practice. But I digress.

You may be wondering what mitochondrial replacement is and why this is a big deal. I’ll try and fill in some of the information, but to be honest, my head is spinning right now with differing views. Mitochondrial replacement is not new; researchers in Oregon, according to the news article, have been working with monkeys for four years and would like to move to human trials. Mitochondrial replacement is taking the nuclear DNA (what people typically think of as DNA, the chromosomes) from a woman and place it into a donor egg. Why would this be done? There are organelles called mitochondria that produce the chemical energy that our cells use (ATP) and these organelles have some genetic material known as mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). mtDNA is a small amount roughly 16,500 base pairs and 37 genes versus the 3 billion base pairs and approximately 20,000-25,000 according to this NIH site. Although mitochondria are fascinating and have an important history, I can’t really take the time to go into that here. Needless to say, there can be mutations in these 37 genes and there are genetic diseases that are linked to mitochondrial genes. The problem is that only the egg cell passes mitochondria onto the resulting embryo. The sperm’s mitochondria are in its tail and only the sperm’s nuclear DNA enters the egg. So if a woman has a mitochondrial genetic disease, it will be passed on to her offspring. Mitochondrial replacement would allow affected women to have a child that is genetically related to them, but not inheriting the genetic condition.

Why is this a big deal? It depends who you ask. I think it is a big deal because I wrote about the possibility of using mitochondrial replacement as motivation for utilizing reproductive cloning in an article published in 2011. There are some people who are upset because they argue the child would have three parents. The two parents who provided nuclear DNA and the donor who supplied the egg containing mitochondria. Others are concerned because changing mitochondrial DNA would be the first recorded instance of germ line therapy. In other words, the changes made in this instance would be genetic changes made by humans that would pass on to any offspring the children resulting from these trials would have. I am unsure how many countries currently ban germline changes, But according to this website, Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands appear to have laws against it. There is also worry from people that allowing these kinds of changes is a slippery slope to designing children.

I will say there is probably very little new about ethical concerns around the ethics of reproductive technologies presented by this case. These kinds of concerns have existed with assisted reproduction, human cloning, and stem cell research. There are a few things, however, that I would like to mention.

The first is that when digging to find multiple sources to back up the FDA’s meeting to discuss this I came across a post in Nature. What I found most disturbing in this post was the following statement: “The FDA, unlike the HFEA, does not consider ethics, and that worries Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, an advocacy group in Berkeley, California.”

If this statement is true, that the FDA does not consider ethics, how did I not know about this? It seems far too big to not know this is the case. I imagine this is editorial and not factual. I find it very hard to believe that the FDA would not take ethics into consideration at all. People may be displeased with specific outcomes, or disagree with decisions they have made, but I have to believe that ethics play a role in their decision making process.

In the original article there is this quote: “We want to replace these mutated genes, which by nature have become pathogenic to humans,” says Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who will present on Tuesday. “We’re reversing them back to normal, so I don’t understand why you would be opposing that.”

I find it disconcerting that there is no reflection on what normal means in this case. The degree I’m working on is in ethics and social theory, and I’ve read enough medical sociology (though by no means am I an expert) to say that what medicine considers “normal” is not necessarily objective fact. Normal and healthy are things that we often take for granted, but we are already seeing normal used two different ways in this case study. People are arguing that mitochondrial replacement is not normal because it would produce embryos with three biological parents. While on the other side, experts are claiming to restore normal function to these mitochondrial genes. Even as a theological ethicist who believes in a normative understanding of human nature, I will need more convincing from experts as to how they define normal in this case.

Related to the discussion of normal, there is the consideration of people who are differently abled. Transhumanist Evan Reese in disagreeing with the position of the Center for Genetics and Society wonders whether society should do everything possible to help people with help problems and that children born with mitochondrial problems could be upset that they were denied the chance to not have these conditions.

I will also say that mitochondrial replacement also would affect genealogical studies using mitochondrial DNA. This is not an argument against the procedure per se, but this was something that came to mind when I was thinking through the implications.

In principle, I am not opposed to mitochondrial replacement itself. If the numbers cited in these articles are correct, then this would only affect 1000-5000 births per year (I’m assuming that number is in the United States alone). Although you cannot draw a hard line between health and enhancement, I do think there is a difference between this case and choosing particular traits for nonmedical reasons. In regards to affecting the germline, the number of genes affected would be so small and the population that would have the replacement done is so small, that the overall impact on humanity’s gene pool is likely small. There could be unforeseen consequences and there are other ways to have children (or adopt children). I would not mind us taking our time in making a decision about making substantial germline modifications, even though according to a speaker at a transhumanism conference I attended recently, any restraint on life extension research should be criminalized.

What Marius represents


(Photo attribution: to be determined!)

(Cross-posted at Biocentered.)

An international internet uproar erupted late last week over news that the Copenhagen Zoo planned to euthanize a healthy, two-year old male giraffe (“Marius”) and use his body to feed other animals, because his genes were overrepresented in the captive giraffe population.

A petition was launched and other organizations offered to take him in, but the Copenhagen Zoo went through with its plans on Sunday morning.  In fact, by the time I first read of the plan in Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today column, the deed had already been done.

The zoo’s explanation is, to many people, incomprehensible and unacceptable.  So much so that some staff members of the Copenhagen Zoo have received death threats.  That, of course, is equally unacceptable.  But the whole episode is illuminating a couple of important realities about zoological parks and aquariums. Continue reading

Space Ethics: Is Exploration a Moral Imperative? Why to Go or Stay Home

Space exploration is important to me. I think it is an important activity for humans, with important associated moral questions. I’ve written before about why I think Christians should support space exploration, and I think many other worldviews can support it as well.

But there is a balance in most worldviews that could tip the judgment either more towards exploration or more against exploration, and that is what I want to look at here.  I want to briefly look at three moral reasons why exploration is good, and three moral reasons why exploration may not be good.  There are no doubt more than three, but these are some of the biggies – if you have more, please leave a comment below.


1) KNOWLEDGE. Scientific knowledge is the primary knowledge we should seek in space, but experiential knowledge is important as well. Continue reading

Guest Post at – Biotechnology Needs More Attention

Recently, William Hurlbut, M.D., of Stanford University and formerly of the President’s Council on Bioethics came to Santa Clara University‘s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and gave the talk “Cloning, Stem Cells, and the Conscience of a Nation” (part of a larger speaker series this year on conscience).

It was a great talk, and I summarized it for Here is an excerpt:

Contemporary biotechnology is developing a voracious appetite for humans and their parts – whether as embryos, fetuses, cells, tissues, or organs…

[Hurlbut] recounted that while visiting a lab he was shown a tiny human arm. This amazing laboratory product was collected as a bud from an aborted embryo and then implanted in a mouse with no immune system (to prevent rejection) and then allowed to grow before ultimately being harvested. Hurlbut recounted that his first response was amazement – now we can grow arms for people! Then, his second reaction was horror – that was going to be somebody’s arm!… Hurlbut mentioned that there are already discussions about whether to ask women to abort their fetuses later so that the parts are more well-developed before harvesting, and that some ethicists believe it is better to use unborn humans for medical experimentation than animals…

Experiments like these are going on right now. How many ethicists / moral theologians / members of the public even know about them? Who should have a say in whether or how experiments like these are conducted?  What kind of society are we where some lives are destroyed so that others may live?

There are more than enough problems in the world to occupy everyone forever, ethicists or not. But Hurlbut’s call is timely and time-sensitive. If we think bad choices are being made now, technology and institutions may become locked-in to those bad choices as time goes on. Now would be a good time to act, for changing course becomes much more difficult once institutional structures adopt regulations and become accustomed to the use of humans and their parts.

Media Says Pope Francis Calls for “More Mercy, Less Orthodoxy”

According to KCBS radio yesterday the papal interview in America Magazine was all about “more mercy, less orthodoxy.”

Oh dear. Where to begin?

It doesn’t even make sense. Mercy IS orthodoxy. It is way more central to orthodoxy than any issues about homosexuality, abortion, or contraception. And he never calls for “less orthodoxy” – this is the Pope we are talking about after all.

Now, I know this was just one radio reporter who said those particular words (KCBS is best for Bay Area traffic reports in any case), but the sentiment seemed widespread in popular media. New York Times, Huffington post, etc. NY Times:

Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control

Continue reading

The Composition of Our Lives

More than a creative written work, the word composition reminds me of a mixture of ingredients, as in Chemistry. With that meaning in mind, I have entitled this post as “the composition of our lives.” However, that shouldn’t give you the impression that this post is about the chemical composition of our lives(what does that mean anyway?). Not at all! Rather this is only a humble attempt to present my analysis of what constitutes our lives. In other words, at the end of our lives, when we look back, what are the ingredients that make up our lives? The list I am going to give might not resonate with that of your’s, as you might have your own list, and that’s fair.

Before I present my list, I should share with you the concept of emergence. That concept will help in making more sense of my list. Christian Smith in his book What is a Person? notes: “Emergence involves the following: First, two or more entities that exist at a “lower” level interact or combine. Second, that interaction or combination serves as the basis of some new, real entity that has existence at a “higher” level. Third, the existence of the new higher-level entity is fully dependent upon the two or more lower-level entities interacting or combining, as they could not exist without doing so. Fourth, the new, higher-level entity nevertheless possesses characteristic qualities (e.g., structures, qualities, capacities, textures, mechanisms) that cannot be reduced to those of the lower-level entities that gave rise to the new entity possessing them” (26). When these four things happen, Smith considers emergence to have happened. The example that he provides is that of water (H20). Hydrogen (H) and Oxygen (O) combine to form a new thing, water, that is quite unlike either H or O. The physical and chemical characteristics of water are quite different from that of it’s constituent ingredients. Anyway, the whole point in presenting this concept and elaborate quote is to say that the three ingredients that I am going to present combine or interact and result in the emergence of life – not in the biological sense, but in the sense of a lived life. 

After all that hype, here’s my list: experiments, experiences, and memories. These three aspects are correlative, and they mutually shape and modify one another, and make up our lives. If we consider our lives to constitute the correlative wheel of experiments, experiences, and memories, then it is possible that at times one of these aspects might function as a hub and influences the other two. Some other times another aspect might take the position of the hub and influence the other two aspects of the correlative wheel of life. Before I lose you, let me explain: For instance, at the age of ninety, memories may serve as the hub of the correlative wheel of our lives. Similarly during childhood, experiments could serve as the hub. This is all hypothetical, but the point that I am trying to make is that, although all the three aspects make up our lives, one might play a major role at one particular point of time. Without any hint of doubt, however, all the three of them keep operating throughout our lives.  At this point, one may ask, aren’t experiments not experiences, and wouldn’t experiments and experiences form memories? The answer is: yes, they are and they will, yet they are not replaceable with one another. They are almost like the three forms that water can take: ice, water, and water vapor. To conclude, the three aspects – experiments, experiences, and memories – combine or interact and constitute our lives.  

Should Ethicists Be Held to a Higher Moral Standard?


There, that was easy. But apparently not all academic ethicists think this is true. Eric Schwitzgebel of UC Riverside at The Splintered Mind (a mind laying in splinters would be a “mindfield,” no?) wrote on this question earlier this week, and it deserves a look:

Josh Rust and I have found, for example, that although U.S.-based ethicists are much more likely than other professors to say it’s bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals (60% say it is bad, vs. 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and only 19% of professors outside of philosophy), they are no less likely to report having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal (37%, in our study, vs. 33% of non-ethicist philosophers and 45% of non-philosophers; details here and also in the previously linked paper).

Talk about not walking the talk. No wonder academic ethics seems so confused to outsiders – if you don’t actually have to do what you tell other people to do (if you even think ethics involves that sort of thing) then you can say just about anything you want. Who cares, you are not going to actually do it.

For this reason, people have known for a long time that if you want to know what a person really thinks, you look to how people actually behave (“actions speak louder than words”) rather than to what they say. What they do will show what they really think is good.

But surely the ethicists in question would not agree that they are hypocrites – philosophers can rationalize much better than most, after all. Here is Schwitzgebel’s scenario of what a hypothetical academic ethicist might say when asked why they do not practice their theoretically-higher standards:

But my role as a philosopher is only to discuss philosophical issues, to present and evaluate philosophical views and arguments, not to live accordingly. Indeed, it would be unfair to expect me to live to higher moral standards just because I am an ethicist. I am paid to teach and write, like my colleagues in other fields; it would be an additional burden on me, not placed on them, to demand that I also live my life as a model. Furthermore, the demand that ethicists live as moral models would create distortive pressures on the field that might tend to lead us away from the moral truth. If I feel no inward or outward pressure to live according to my publicly espoused doctrines, then I am free to explore doctrines that demand high levels of self-sacrifice on an equal footing with more permissive doctrines. If instead I felt an obligation to live as I teach, I would be highly motivated to avoid concluding that wealthy people should give most of their money to charity or that I should never lie out of self-interest. The world is better served if the intellectual discourse of moral philosophy is undistorted by such pressures, that is, if ethicists are not expected to live out their moral opinions. Such a view of the role of the philosopher is very different from the view of most ancient ethicists.

Indeed, Aristotle grounds his Nicomachean Ethics with the idea that the point of studying ethics is to become good, and in so doing become a virtuous, flourishing, fulfilled, happy human being.

Because really, what other point could there be? Become a famous philosopher? Ha! Well, less flippantly, finding “The Truth” might be another point, and the truth might not actually make you so happy, one might retort, but you can bet that if I figured out “The Truth,” I’d be happy since I’d just accomplished a pretty big thing.

Ethics is the study of action with respect to the good for humans, which is happiness. Once you figure that out, shouldn’t you have some practically useful insights from it? Shouldn’t you want to become a more excellent, happier human being (whatever that means to you) if you think you have that figured out?

Because if you say you have it figured out and then you don’t do it, you don’t bother to try, then, it seems like you don’t actually think it is good. That your theories won’t make you a better person, that they won’t make you happier. You say one thing and live another.

And if you say one thing and consciously do another… I start to scowl.

But I can’t say I am surprised. Many contemporary academic ethicists just don’t think ethics is about becoming a good person. That is a very ancient strand of ethics, and no longer popular.

Aristotelians and Thomists are exceptions to this. I would be interested in knowing whether they also fall into this theory/practice trap, or whether it is more the Kantians and/or utilitarians. Also I wonder if religion would have any effect.  I’m not saying I expect it would, but I hope would. After all, at least in Christianity, hypocrisy gets called out by the Big Guy himself. And if Christians can’t produce academic ethicists who think it worthy at least to try (actually doing it has always proven difficult) to follow their own standards then it starts to look a bit like they don’t believe at all. And that is scandalous.

In any case, this is terrific research and I appreciate The Splintered Mind for bringing it to light. Good job guys.