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EnGENEering the future

Biotech revolution spawns vocal opposition, as science enters brave new world - with ethical debate trailing far behind.

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Young people in monarch-butterfly costumes darted about the crowd, and white-coated "scientists" gave suspicious injections to giant vegetables. The street theater at the rally in Boston's Copley Square last week was full of pointed good humor, but the speeches against biotechnology were deadly serious.

Just down the street, the BIO 2000 Conference welcomed more than 10,000 scientists and businessmen to what one termed "not Beantown but Genetown." The industry is grabbing the global spotlight, raising a stunning $8 billion on the stock market this year, but taking some blows from growing public resistance to genetically modified crops.

Most people agree on the potential of the biotechnology revolution to radically transform society. But views vary widely on how much it will be for good or for ill, and who should have a say in influencing the directions it takes.

The industry tends to see public concerns as resulting primarily from lack of information. "Less than half of Americans over 18 know anything about biotechnology," Dan Eramian, vice president of communications for Biotechnology Industry Organization, told one session. "We just haven't communicated." BIO has initiated an ad campaign with the theme: "Biotechnology, a big word that means hope."

Indeed, insiders - exulting in the dazzling breakthroughs and in what they see as "the biotechnology century" - feel they are on the cusp of a new world with untold benefits for everyone. As one company president enthused, "If we are successful, everything will change - our health, our food, ourselves."

The 1,500 protesters who showed up in Boston for a "counter-conference" to the industry meeting, called Biodevastation 2000, held sessions on dangers posed by various biotechnologies and efforts of nongovernmental groups to counter them. They see an industry driven by visions of tremendous profits, rushing into a brave new world with huge risks to health and the environment and insufficient government oversight. Some feel decisions are being made without the public involvement demanded by a democratic society.

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