The decision by the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates fertility scientists, means the UK the first country in the western world to allow such research.
Scientists led by Dr Kathy Niakan, at the Francis Crick Institute in London, have been granted a licence to “cut and paste” the DNA of donated embryos as part of an investigation into miscarriage.
The work is controversial because it involves altering “germline” DNA that is inherited.
All the embryos used will must be destroyed after two weeks and it will be illegal to implant them into a womb.
But critics say the HFEA has ignored warnings, acted too hastily, and set scientists on the start of a slippery slope towards the creation of genetically modified “designer babies”.
Dr David King, director of the watchdog group Human Genetics Alert, said: “This research will allow the scientists to refine the techniques for creating GM babies, and many of the UK government’s scientific advisers have already decided that they are in favour of allowing that.
“This is the first step in a well mapped-out process leading to GM babies, and a future of consumer eugenics.”
Anne Scanlan, from the pro-life organisation Life, said: “The HFEA now has the reputation of being the first regulator in the world to approve this uncertain and dangerous technology. It has ignored the warnings of over a hundred scientists worldwide and given permission for a procedure which could have damaging far-reaching implications for human beings.
“We are .. concerned that such controversial intervention in the human germline opens up the very real possibility of eugenics where the existence of human beings becomes conditional on the possession of certain physical characteristics.”
Josephine Quintavalle, from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core), accused the HFEA of “arrogance”.
“This is a very contentious and extremely dangerous area of embryo manipulation which is eliciting worldwide concern, and at the very least the HFEA should have waited until Nuffield had had a chance to examine responses,” said Ms Quintavalle.
In sharp contrast, members of the scientific establishment lined up to congratulate the HFEA on its decision and welcomed the announcement.