WASHINGTON — Last spring a young woman unwittingly released 30 trillion unidentified foreign bacteria in the yard of her new home. Steve Lindow calls her act "far more dangerous" than what he wants to do.
Lindow is a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been trying since 1983 to get legal permission to spray gene-spliced bacteria on potato plants in a field in California.
The young woman's illegal act was transplanting wildflowers from Michigan to Virginia in a bucket full of soil. Lindow said the bucket of soil would have contained about the same number of live bacteria as he plans to release, "but we're only using native California bacteria, and we can characterize the bacteria present. There's far less hazard."
If Lindow's work is less dangerous, it also has a more serious purpose than transplanting posies. He wants to test the bacteria's power to reduce frost damage to plants and, at the same time, test the regulatory system that will govern the release of genetically engineered creatures into the environment.
If the anti-frost bacteria pass their field test, some estimates say they could save farmers $1 billion a year in crops now lost to early freezing.
So far, all that has been tested is the plant pathologist's patience and the regulatory system. The bacteria will remain in the lab at least until next year.
In a court suit aimed at blocking release of the organisms, the university agreed Aug. 20 to temporarily drop plans to test them and to meet with organizations and individuals who brought the suit.
University officials said it was too late in the season to begin the experiment.
Other scientists trying to get approval for a first release of genetically engineered bacteria have faced similar lengthy encounters with federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state and federal courts.
One company, Advanced Genetic Systems Inc. of Oakland, received a boost recently in its effort to use frost-proof bacteria on strawberry plants. The EPA said the company's indoor test results indicate "no foreseeable adverse impacts to human health or the environment are likely to result."
But the EPA also said the company must first select a site for its outdoor strawberry testing before the federal agency will consider issuing a test permit.
The company had hoped to run the test on a strawberry field in Monterey County, but local officials protested and the experiment was canceled. Advanced Genetic Systems said a new site has not been selected.
Jeremy Rifkin, the most conspicuous and vocal opponent of releasing organisms with "designer genes," predicted that Advanced Genetic Systems will run into more citizen resistance for its strawberry testing "because no one wants to be the first guinea pig."
It was his group, the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends, that filed suit against Lindow's experiment.
For the frost resistance, scientists use the natural plant bacterium Pseudomonas syringae and remove a gene that makes a protein that acts as a nucleus for ice-crystal formation. Scientists hope that the altered bacteria will colonize on the plants and crowd out the bacteria containing the frost-triggering protein.
The legal battles may have been exasperating to the genetic engineers, but they have clarified the regulations and provided a forum for discussing potential hazards of releasing genetically engineered organisms.
The debates have pitted non-scientists, who fear that the gene-splicing technology may have unforeseen risks, against scientists who, like Lindow, see virtually no risk in his carefully regulated research.
That there even is an issue shows how far biotechnology has come in a decade.
Scientists use genetic engineering techniques to make direct changes in the DNA blueprint of cells. After they have identified and characterized a gene that gives a cell a specific trait, they use chemical scissors to manipulate the gene. Genes can be snipped out, moved to another cell and chemically knitted into the genetic plan of a different variety or a different species.
With such techniques, researchers can produce in a few months what could take years to obtain through traditional genetic techniques.
The older methods rely on rare natural or induced mutations to produce a desired trait and then may require generations of breeding to combine the gene with other desirable genes.
Genetic engineers may also move genes across breeding boundaries that nature and traditional genetic techniques could never cross. Human growth hormone genes, for example, have been inserted into the genetic blueprint of mice, and disease-resistance genes from bacteria have been inserted into tobacco plants.