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Replay: Engines of destruction

20 Jan, 2012
All life depends on energy from the Sun to survive. Thankfully, our star is only too happy to generously cast its warmth across 150 million kilometres of space to reach Earth, providing plants with the precious wavelengths of light they need to grow, and the foundation for the planet’s food.

Food has evolved to be experienced as something that is, on the whole, delicious. But in addition to enlivening taste buds, food and the calories within are the source of power needed to make us move, think and live. Every cell in the human body (barring red blood cells) contains the means to convert carbohydrate into the energy needed by cells to perform their basic and vital functions: mitochondria.

These numerous, self-contained ‘organelles’ inhabit our cells, churning out molecular energy to be used in the daunting number of tasks a normal cell must achieve every second in order to ensure its smooth running. But more than mere ‘batteries’, mitochondria have their own genetic identity, their own DNA separate from that in other cells in the body, affording them a touch of independence from the vast genetic repository of the cell’s nucleus.

Where there’s DNA there’s also the possibility for mutation and mitochondria are not exempt. In around one in every 6500 women (because mitochondria are passed directly from the mother’s egg to the foetus) such mutations in the mitochondrial DNA pass unrepaired from mother to child. Unfortunately, many of these mutations result in the child inheriting any one of a number of associated, debilitating mitochondrial diseases – the result of mitochondria not being able to live up to their cell’s energetic expectations. This can set in motion an evolutionary domino effect, with successive women carrying such mutations, passing the disease onto subsequent generations.

In this film, recent research from Professor Doug Turnbull and his team (now part of the newly-announced Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University explain the  safe, permanent, way they’ve developed to stop the passage of faulty mitochondria once and for all.

What struck me when I spoke with Doug and Professor Alison Murdoch, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at Newcastle University and Head of Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life, was the apparent controversy surrounding such work; it seems the mere mention of ‘human embryos’ is enough to spark controversy without regard for the precise nature and potential of the work being carried out.

The human material they use for this research is provided entirely voluntarily and, were it not used, would simply be discarded. Doug, Alison and others are pioneering a way to eliminate human misery and suffering, removing a biological albatross from families throughout the UK. Isn’t one of science’s greatest achievements this ability to improve lives through such advances?

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