Shut your doors and spray the hatches. Laboratory-spawned mini-Frankensteins, invisible to the naked eye, may soon be on the loose. Today a few strawberries, tomorrow who knows how much of the Earth may be blighted by a genetically engineered, permanent frost-resistant coat. Thus reasons a vocal group of lobbyists protesting the field testing of a new technologically engineered bacterium. Heeding these warnings, the Environmental Protection Agency recently retracted the permission it had given to an Oakland company, Advanced Genetic Sciences, to test their new frost-resistant bacteria on strawberries. The EPA acted when the Oakland company misconstrued regulations and injected some of the new bacteria into the bark of trees atop their rooftop laboratory. They claimed that because the test was not in the open air, there was no danger to the environment.
At about the same time, a British bioengineering company was given the go-ahead to introduce a genetically engineered virus in Scotland. The Advisory Committee on Genetic Manipulation has recommended to the British Health and Safety Commission that a group of Oxford molecular biologists release especially marked viruses into a grove of lodgetree pine trees that had been planted by the Forestry Commission. The trees, which are not native to Scotland, have been suffering damage from a moth, Panolis flammea. In its caterpillar stage, Panolis flammea is susceptible to a virus found elsewhere in Britain. The biologists have a two-stage plan. Initially they will spray several hundred acres with the "imported" virus, some of which will have a harmless strand of DNA added to it as a marker to track its effects. If it works as expected, they hope to recombine the genes of the virus to make it even more lethal to the moths. They also plan to engineer into it a mechanism that will ensure that after it has done the job, the virus will self-destruct.
Meanwhile, in the United States, another Calfornia biotechology firm, Calgene, of Davis, is perfecting a virus that will make tobacco plants resistant to herbicides. Calgene is subject to different restrictions from those guiding AGS in Oakland. This is because bacteria are considered pesticides, and come under the auspices of the EPA, while viruses are considered plants and are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Is there such a difference between bacteria and viruses as to require different kinds of oversight? Not enough to warrant the kind of fear engendered by some activists, according to Richard E. Dickerson of the Molecular Biology Institute at UCLA. Bacteria are very small single-cell organisms capable of reproducing by division. Viruses, which are much smaller, are a kind of parasite that need the genetic material in host cells to reproduce. But both abound in nature where they are constantly mutating into new forms, most of which do not survive.
In fact, Dickerson explains, it was the recognition that there is very little danger from laboratory-made microorganisms that caused the National Institutes of Health to relax their guidelines about genetically engineered substances. It is highly unlikely that scientists can come up with anything that nature has not already created at some point. The biological sphere would have long since been destroyed if the ecosystem was so fragile.
In a recent editorial in Science magazine, Philip Abelson ponders a report from the National Academy of Engineers. In detailing the flagging successes of American competition, the NAE cites our poor educational record for producing scientists and engineers unable to compete in a world market.
Abelson then raises another kind of problem--the current public demand to live in a risk-free society. This mood, he fears, will cause America to lose our leadership in biotechnology. He does not suggest that we rush into the production of potentially lethal microorganisms, but that we should examine the risks realistically. This means avoiding the influence of pressure groups that believe that the whole concept of genetic engineering is both diabolic, and new.
Evolution is a continuing process. The advent of human interference into the evolution of life on this planet began when the first human being domesticated a stalk of grain. We have always participated in the evolutionary process. Genetic engineering is just a more sophisticated way of doing so. With reasoned caution and balanced judgement, the new technology promises to serve the needs of mankind.