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Congress must find better ways to regulate genetic engineering

Aware of activist pressures and with winter fast approaching, the University of California recently postponed the world's first field test of a genetically engineered bacterium. This allows breathing space to resolve the serious issues the protesters have raised.

They insist that more be done to assess the environmental effects of releasing such ''unnatural'' organisms. They question the ecological competence of the government agency that approved the test. And they question the possibility of conflicts of interest on the part of those who sit on that committee. These are issues that go beyond this particular experiment.

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The bacterium in question - Pseudomona syringaem - makes crop plants susceptible to frost. It secretes a protein that acts as a nucleus for ice crystals. Steven Lindow and Nicholas Panopoulos of the university's Berkeley campus have used genetic engineering to remove the gene for that protein from a laboratory strain of the bacterium. They had planned to release the microbe in a potato field, hopeful that the altered bacteria would replace the wild bacteria during the frost season. Earlier tests with bacteria that had been chemically treated to neutralize this gene had been successful.

Because of these earlier successes and because the altered bacteria did not persist beyond a few months, the Berkeley scientists have said they can see no possible danger in using their genetically engineered strain. They may well be right. But Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation for Economic Trends, and Michael Fox, scientific director of the Humane Society of the United States, are as concerned about the precedent being set as about this particular experiment's safety. Their suit against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to suspend permission granted for the experiment is part of a larger campaign.

Rifkin, especially, is a genetic engineering gadfly. He has actively sought to curtail it and would halt all such research if that were possible. His attacks, often delivered with scientifically dubious rhetoric, give him little credibility in the scientific community. Yet, when it comes down to cases, as it does here, he often has a point worth considering.

Rifkin and his fellow plaintiffs point out that the NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Comittee (RAC) is short on ecological expertise. NIH does not contest this. Rifkin also asks that the RAC ensure its members do not have conflicts of interest. This is hard to do in a pioneering field where the experts who would regulate it are perforce also its practitioners. Yet, Rifkin notes, when field trials of man-tailored organisms are getting under way, the time has come to deal with these regulatory issues.

Rifkin is wrong to try to stop genetic engineering research. But this does not undercut the validity of the issues he has raised. NIH has indicated it plans to appoint competent ecologists to the RAC. It also can address the conflict-of-interest question. This could be done by the time Lindow wants to begin his field tests next spring.

Whether or not this would defuse the Rifkin-Fox suit depends partly on how quickly a new safety assessment could be made. Ultimately, Congress will have to establish a more satisfactory means for regulating the fast-developing commercial uses of genetic engineering. Public concern will demand such regulation in spite of the confidence of many biologists that little danger exists. Lowly lichens' vital role

Deserts are a harsh environment. Their life forms have to make the most of scarce resources. A lowly crust of lichen and moss, algae and fungi turns out to be a major conservationist in this effort.

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Brigham Young University reports that these plants live together in a matrix that both makes the most of scanty rainfall and enriches the soil.

The plants form what's called a ''cryptogamic'' crust. Many desert soils have such coverings. BYU ecologists Jack D. Brotherson and Samuel R. Rushforth find that these plant communities have evolved so as to give the desert floor a pattern of tiny humps and hollows. These channel and trap rainfall, allowing it to percolate into the underlying soil. They also retard evaporation and help hold the soil from blowing away.

What is more, the BYU ecologists note, some of the algae fix nitrogen from the air. This adds fertilizer to the soil, which decaying plant remains also enrich.

All told, the cryptogamic plant crusts seem to be an important soil manager for deserts. This is yet another lesson in the need to understand thoroughly what is important to the health and life-supporting capacity of different environments. The harsher or poorer an environment appears to be, the subtler may be the action of organisms that maintain its habitability. Hypnotic hazards

In spite of hypnotism's dubious status, some police agencies and even some courts use it to enhance the memory of witnesses. Yet, when psychologists study this phenomenon, they often find that what hypnotized witnesses recall is at best a distorted version of what they saw.

Two Canadian psychologists now have added their warning. In their experiments , subjects easily hypnotized also most readily produced false memories.

The psychologists - Jane Dywan and Kenneth Bowers of the University of Waterloo, Ontario - asked subjects to study a collection of 60 drawings depicting common objects. Then they were asked to remember as many of the drawings as possible.

As Dywan and Bowers reported recently in Science, the results do not inspire confidence in the use of hypnotism for legal purposes. There was a slight improvement in memory recall. But this was more than offset by the errors and fabricated memories hypnotic suggestion induced. Hypnotized subjects made three times as many mistakes as did unhypnotized people. Furthermore, the hypnotized ''witnesses'' described drawings they never saw.