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Defining Genetic Modification

The UK government has come under fire from some scientists for trying to reduce hostility to its plans to allow regulated IVF treatments that use genetic material from three people, the Independent reports.

Some scientists, including Lord Winston, a pioneer of fertility treatments, say the UK Department of Health has tweaked its definition of the term 'genetic modification' in such a way that excludes mitochondria donation, and thus will lessen opposition to the procedure.

Many who oppose this procedure, sometimes called 'three-parent IVF, say it essentially amounts to people with three parents and allowing it is a major step towards "designer babies" and 'genetically modified children," the Independent notes.

The government has admitted it has been trying to adopt a working definition of GM to enable regulations governing mitochondrial donation to move forward. Some scientists, however, say this redefinition of GM is "dishonest."

Winston says the government used a "bizarre justification" to come to the right decision.

"Of course mitochondrial transfer is genetic modification and this modification is handed down the generations. It is totally wrong to compare it with a blood transfusion or a transplant and an honest statement might be more sensible and encourage public trust," he says.

University of Sussex evolutionary biologist Ted Morrow says the government is "doing all it can to contain and define these kinds of terms in ways that favor mitochondrial replacement," and is pushing that idea that the procedure "does nothing more than generate mitochondria," and that the genes don't encode other important traits.

The opponents of the procedure also are not thrilled with the change. David King, from the Human Genetics Alert group, says the health department's effort to restrict the GM term to nuclear inheritable changes is "clearly political. They don't want people like me saying they are legalizing GM babies."