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Opening the door to progress in genetic engineering

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GENETIC engineering is one of the most important scientific developments of the 20th century. It promises breakthroughs in agriculture, pest control, chemicals, and medicines. Yet people treat its products like produce from Chernobyl. Fear of the unknown, distrust of experts, and the agitations of activists who don't like genetic manipulation feed public uncertainty and inhibit progress. Lawsuits over license procedures or incomplete environmental impact assessments have brought promising tests to screeching halts. Even when these issues are resolved, local public opposition can remain a barrier.

The industry badly needs effective, streamlined federal regulation to reassure the public that its interests are protected. New administration guidelines assigning this responsibility to specific agencies will help. But it won't be enough to clear away public apprehension. Under these circumstances, biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin may well be right in saying that the industry's inability to get liability insurance in the present social climate is its Achilles' heel.

The case of the so-called ice-minus bacteria illustrates the problem. Few people doubt that the experiment is safe. Yet it has become a prototype case for biotech opponents.

The bacterium Pseudomonas syringae, which lives on leaves of such plants as strawberry and potato, makes a protein that encourages frost. Using genetic engineering techniques, bacteriologists can snip out the gene that enables the bacterium to make this protein. When batches of these ice-minus bacteria are sprayed on plants before natural bacteria become established, their colonies can crowd out their ice-forming cousins.

Plant pathologists Steven Lindow and Nickolas Panopoulos of the University of California (UC) at Berkeley thought this might help protect potatoes from frost damage in climatically marginal areas. They set up a 1984 field test at the UC Agricultural Experiment Station in Tulelake, Calif. But Jeremy Rifkin's Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends managed to hold up the tests with a procedural lawsuit.

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