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Playing fast and loose with genetic engineering research rules

GENETIC tinkerers should review the Iran-contra hearings. If there's one message that came through clearly it's the folly of trying to promote a cause by flouting the rules. Yet that's what Montana State University microbiologist Gary Strobel did when he injected genetically altered bacteria into young elm trees before receiving the required approval.

Like many fellow genetic engineering researchers, he felt frustrated by what he considers overly restrictive regulation. He resented having to wait for approval, which he says would have caused a year's delay in his experiment to field-test a possible treatment for Dutch elm disease. So, he explained, ``I'm expressing civil disobedience.''

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His scientific colleagues may understand his frustration. But they have given him few, if any, accolades. Instead, he's earned the kind of harsh criticism expressed in a formal statement of the Industrial Biotechnology Association. ``The IBA is appalled at the blatant arrogance of the university researcher who violated federal regulations for the release of genetically engineered microbes,'' the statement declares. It adds, ``We encourage the EPA to throw the book at Gary Strobel.''

At this writing, the Environmental Protection Agency had not yet announced what action it will take. It may also discipline the university. That would be unfortunate, for Strobel had not reported his plans, as required, to the university's biosafety committee before releasing the bacteria.

Referring to information withheld from him in the Iran-contra affair, President Reagan said he had the right and responsibility to know what was going on and make his own decision about the actions. Montana State's biosafety committee likewise had the right and responsibility to know what Strobel proposed doing and to decide for itself whether or not to approve it. Strobel's defiance of federal regulations put his university, as well as himself, at risk. That isn't ``civil disobedience.'' It's just plain selfishness.

As far as the experiment itself is concerned, there is probably little environmental risk. A strain of the bacterium Pseudonomas syringae was genetically altered to enhance production of a natural antibiotic that kills Dutch elm disease fungus. Strobel injected the bacteria into 18-year-old elm trees growing out-of-doors that had also been purposely infected with the fungus. The university biosafety committee considers the danger of either the bacteria or the fungus spreading to be minimal. It has concluded, however, that the trees should be destroyed under supervision of the EPA and the federal Department of Agriculture.

Federal regulations require EPA approval of any release of genetically engineered microbes - dangerous or not. The uncertainties about environmental danger of releasing such microbes and public concern about it are such that decisions of safety for any experiment cannot be left to the experimenters, however harmless the experiment may seem to them. This was made perfectly clear last year when the EPA fined Genetic Sciences Inc. of Oakland, Calif., $13,000 for injecting genetically engineered bacteria into trees.

Strobel and many other microbiologists may be right in calling current regulation of genetic engineering experiments overly restrictive and confusing. Last week, the National Academy of Sciences released a study that urges a ``wise balance'' between experimental freedom and regulation. It expressed the conviction shared by most experts that there is little environmental risk in many of the planned experiments.

Certainly, there is need to review the regulation of this fast-moving scientific field as its implications for the environment become clearer. But microbiologists should remember that the public has a large stake in what they are doing. They are pioneering techniques for manipulating organic life at its fundamental level. This raises equally basic moral, ethical, and philosophical questions that society as a whole will have to settle.

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Scientists who are developing the new knowledge should help their fellow citizens understand the implications of their work. They should help Congress and state legislatures think through the best way to regulate the growth of this scientific revolution. Thumbing their nose at public concern and regulatory foibles is childish.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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