The World’s First (and Last) “Genetically Modified” Babies

This story comes from an ABC News report in 2001, recently picked up by blogs and recirculated through the web, titled “Report: First Genetically Altered Babies”:

Researchers in New Jersey claim that 30 human babies might have been born with genes from three people: their mother, their father — and a third person, whose genes were added in the laboratory.

The researchers call their experiment “the first case of human … genetic modification resulting in normal healthy children.”

The team at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St. Barnabas in West Orange, N.J. was trying to help infertile women become pregnant.

The women were believed to be infertile because they had defects in their germ cell’s mitochondria, and as a result their eggs could not survive and reproduce. Scientists took eggs from the mothers and injected healthy mitochondria from donor eggs into the cells, in a process called “cytoplasmic transfer,” and then fertilized the eggs with sperm from the fathers, finally implanting them into the mothers.

It worked, and 12 women successfully conceived and gave birth to healthy babies. Because mitochondria has its own DNA, their babies have genes from three people: the mother, the father, and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the egg donor, which will be passed down along the maternal line. The technique was first used in 1996, but it wasn’t until March of 2001 that two of the fifteen babies were confirmed to have tiny amounts of mtDNA from someone other than their parents. (Thanks to a rather irritating practice of websites not time-stamping their archived articles, whenever people stumble across this story they think it’s breaking news every time.) 

Burn the heretics!
Burn the heretics!

Was this fantastic scientific breakthrough greeted with applause and adulation by the public and government regulators? Were high-fives thrown and hugs given to strangers? Did people journey for miles to see this miracle, and then rush forth, in the manner of 1st century Judean shepherds, to tell others of this marvelous occurrence? Of course not. Shrieks of outrage were heard about “genetic modification,” “designer babies,” and (no overreaction would be complete without them) Nazi eugenicists.

In a hilarious and error-riddled post at, it’s asserted, “The technique used could allow the parents of a child to choose a third parent with traits they wish their children to have, such as being taller, and would open up the whole debate about the ethics of designer babies.”

The Daily Mail’s fear-mongering article exclaimed, “Geneticists fear that one day this method could be used to create new races of humans with extra, desired characteristics such as strength or high intelligence.” What ignorant twaddle. Geneticists say that? Not ones who have any clue what they’re talking about.

Cytoplasmic transfer is not recombinant DNA modification–what we mean when we talk about “genetically modifying” crops, for instance: changing specific genes to get a desired result. The scientists didn’t modify any traits or change anything about the children: they are still the result of the normal meiotic and fertilization processes. All they did was inject, very crudely, functioning mitochondria into the women’s eggs, and some of those became part of the child’s germline.

Mitochondrial DNA composes less than 0.03% of human DNA.
Mitochondrial DNA composes barely 0.03% of human DNA.

Dr. Jacques Cohen, the senior researcher involved, made this very clear at the time: “We haven’t changed any genes. That’s a huge step compared to the little thing that we did. But you could say there would have normally been mitochondria from only one source (the mother). Now there’s mitochondria from two sources, and therefore there’s two different types of mitochondria DNA there.”

In fact, genetically engineering your child’s complex traits, like personality or intelligence, appears to be theoretically impossible:

“The only thing you can reliably design is the sex of your baby — if you are willing to discard embryos of the wrong sex,” said Bonnie Steinbock, a biomedical ethics professor at the University of Albany who specializes in reproduction.

As for selecting complex multi-gene traits, like height or intelligence, “even in principle it isn’t possible,” she said, pointing out it is antithetical to recent findings in biology. For instance, gene expression is affected by even minute aspects of the environment, so even animal clones don’t come out looking the same.

None of this made any difference. Responding to speculative fears by the public and lacking a shred of evidence that the practice was harmful, the FDA effectively banned further use of the procedure in 2001, based on the fact that it was possible (i.e., had a probability greater than zero) something might go wrong.

Without any clear legal authority to do so, they blandly asserted that “FDA has jurisdiction over the use of human cells that have received transferred genetic material by means other than the union of gamete nuclei.” They mandated that every doctor seek approval through the “Investigational New Drug” procedure, an arcane and complicated process designed to control testing of new prescription drugs.

Since the imposition of the expensive and time consuming regulations, use of cytoplasmic transfer in fertility treatment has ground to a halt, and its use to prevent the transmission of untreatable genetic diseases to children has also been retarded, while regulators fiddle.

At last report? All the “GM children” were doing fine. The same might not be said for thousands of infertile couples and the thousands of children who will never get the chance to be.

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Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.

View all posts by Daniel Bier


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