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Scientific VIEW

A Political Brouhaha Over Bacteria

January 23, 1985|BETTY ANN KEVLES

All human beings journey through life in the company of a raft of bacteria that they scarcely notice. Among the most numerous are vast colonies of escherichia coli-- usually referred to as e. coli , which call our large intestines home.

We depend on e. coli to complete our digestive processes. We cannot do without them. Infants are born with their mother's particular strain of e. coli , without which they could not digest milk.

A Special Emigrant The Soviet biologist David Goldfarb differs from the rest of us in one crucial respect. In addition to the bacteria he carries within his gut, he included test tubes of mutant strains of e. coli among the goods that he proposed to take with him as an emigrant from the Soviet Union. Last April, when he packed his laboratory samples along with scientific notes, printed papers and a visa for Israel, he was stopped 10 days short of departure by KGB officers who confiscated both his collection of bacteria and his scientific papers. They warned him that he was wanted as a material witness for the crime of diffusing information of importance to the security of the state.

Goldfarb, a medical doctor and a former director of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Bacteriophages of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, is the highest ranking scientist in more than six years to have received permission to emigrate. A veteran of the battle of Stalingrad, he had left a leg on the battlefield. The supply of e. coli that the KGB removed were mutant strains, most of which Goldfarb had obtained almost 20 years earlier from laboratories in London, the United States and Warsaw.

There is a great deal of international collaboration in science, including the science of genetics. Those very confiscated strains have since been deposited in two Soviet collections where they are available, upon request, to all microbiologists, including those in Britain who in the 1970s asked for, and received, samples of other strains developed by Soviet researchers.

Geneticists like to work with e. coli because it is a relatively simple organism whose genetic makeup is more familiar than that of any other living object. Goldfarb had been working with particular strains of e. coli as indicators of amino acids in human urine and blood plasma. Like other geneticists, he had developed new strains of bacteria and shared them with colleagues. The standard etiquette among biologists is to develop a strain, use it in an experiment, then publish the results. Once it becomes part of the scientific literature, the e. coli are available to anyone who want it. E. coli are harmless, and there is no history of any infection ever having come from handling it.

Yet David Goldfarb is still awaiting leave to join his family in the West. He had left his lab, gotten rid of most of his worldly goods, and was about to leave when the KGB decided that he was a menace to national security. They claim that Goldfarb can give information on recombinant DNA to the West, despite the fact that most of his bacteria and a good deal of his scientific knowledge originated here.

Goldfarb's research never dealt with secret information. The Soviet Academy of Sciences knew that when they gave him a visa to emigrate. It looks as if Goldfarb has become a pawn between the academy and the KGB, which does not like other institutions making decisions on such delicate matters as emigration.

Embarrassed by the events, the Soviet Academy has put him back on salary, in spite of the fact that he is still applying to emigrate.

Meanwhile, scientists in the West have come to Goldfarb's defense. A committee of 176 European scientists, including 13 Nobel laureates, signed a letter of protest to the Soviet Union. In April, the Pasteur Institute in Paris refused to accept the son of a prominent Soviet scientist as a student unless Goldfarb accompanied him. And supporters of Goldfarb in the United States and Britain are now urging their colleagues not to supply their Soviet counterparts with any more new strains of e. coli until Goldfarb is allowed to emigrate.

It is a taut tightrope that Western scientists are compelled to tread. Somehow they have to balance their ideals of a truly international community of science with their respect for the sacredness of human rights.

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