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The Benefits of a New Era

November 17, 1985

A decade ago, when biologists learned how to alter the genetic makeup of microorganisms, they voluntarily called a halt to such research until its potential dangers could be assessed. It was the first time in history that scientists agreed to a voluntary moratorium on research that might be harmful.

The fear at that time was that a new organism might be created in the laboratory that would escape into the environment and devastate the world. After several years of further research, however, it became apparent that the possibility of a catastrophe from genetic engineering is remote, and all investigations since have confirmed that. The scientists who worried about the problem in the first place and backed the moratorium on research have long since come to the conclusion that experiments in genetic engineering should proceed. They hold great promise for social good.

So it is altogether proper for the Environmental Protection Agency to have approved the first open-air experiment with genetically engineered bacteria, and it is time for the courts to call a halt to the obstructionist, baseless challenges brought by Jeremy Rifkin, the self-styled environmentalist, in an effort to halt this work. There is no reason to fear the science-fiction scenario of mutant bacteria destroying the environment.

The actual experiment, which is scheduled to be formed near Monterey late this year or early next, involves spraying genetically altered bacteria onto one-fifth of an acre of strawberry plants. The bacteria are a kind commonly found in nature, but have been altered so that they do not produce a protein that is the basis for the formation of ice crystals on the plants. As a result, it is expected that the plants will be able to survive in colder weather than they are now able to endure. Advanced Genetic Sciences Inc. of Oakland will conduct the experiment, which is likely to be the harbinger of many more applications of genetic engineering for social good.

This particular experiment has been scrutinized by independent researchers and scientists at several federal agencies, who have concluded that the risks range from minuscule to non-existent. Rifkin's insistence on a guarantee of perfect safety is ludicrous, and would ensure a halt to all progress. The era of genetic engineering is being ushered in amid much thought and careful regard for the possibility of trouble. The initial fears were unfounded. The experiments should go forward. Society awaits the benefits.

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