Avoiding a genetic catastrophe

Pat Ohlendorf August 6 1984

Avoiding a genetic catastrophe

Pat Ohlendorf August 6 1984

Avoiding a genetic catastrophe


Pat Ohlendorf

Genetic engineering, once the fanciful preserve of science-fiction writers, has become a startling reality. Laboratory procedures that artificially combine the reproductive genes of unrelated species to produce new life-forms are now almost routine. But as the new technology forges ahead, some experts express growing concern about the possible apocalyptic events that might occur if the new types of life are released, unrestricted, into the envi-

ronment. There is still no consensus on how to control the pressing ambition of scientists and companies to test the new organisms. And the federal district court in Washington, D.C., added to the uncertainty when it banned American university researchers from field testing a man-made bacterium that is also currently under review in Ottawa. As a result, regulatory bodies in the United States and Canada have reached an impasse, and the debut into the environment of the dramatic—and profitable-new biotechnology is stalled.

The lack of a consensus among scientists and government leaders has frustrated experts in the new technology

because the genetically altered plants and micro-organisms that they are creating hold tremendous promise. Synthetic human insulin, an improvement on previous types, is already on the market. And scientists have now created new organisms that can clean up pollutants and help to mine minerals. Genetically modified plants and animals can thrive in harsh environments and provide dramatically increased food yields. Microbiologist Ananda Chakrabarty of the University of Illinois, for one, is waiting for U.S. government ap-

proval to field test two unique organisms. One is a bacterium specially developed to dissolve and clean up oil spills. The second is a bacterium that Chakrabarty genetically altered to enable it to consume and destroy the deadly herbicide Agent Orange, which the U.S. Air Force used against the Viet Cong in Vietnam. Explained Chakrabarty: “In the lab we have shown that this microorganism can remove more than 95 per cent of Agent Orange from highly contaminated soils. And when Agent Orange is removed, the soil can again support the growth of plants.”

At the same time, scientists at the University of California at Berkeley are

ready to test a new bacterium that can be sprayed on temperature-sensitive food crops such as potatoes to help protect them from cold weather and frost damage. They created the organism by chemically removing the gene that was responsible for the formation of ice crystals on the outside of the plants in cold weather. And scientists at Stanford University are eager to field test a new genetically altered strain of corn that they have created through biotechnology and that has an enormously improved protein content.

In Canada no man-made living organisms are ready for testing in the environment, but Canadian scientists want to become more involved in the new field. The Canadian Forestry Service’s manager for biological control, geneticist Terry Ennis, said that he hopes genetic manipulation will increase the effectiveness of natural viruses which the service uses to control tree-destroying insects such as the spruce budworm. And the mining industry, long familiar with the natural bacteria that dissolve copper and uranium out of rock, is working to improve the effectiveness of the organisms at low temperatures. Indeed, most sectors of the Canadian economy might eventually benefit from increased research in biotechnology. Declared Maurice Brossard, vice-president for biotechnology at the National Research Council: “There will be fantastic markets in 10 years for biotechnological products or processes—in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, energy, chemistry, pulp and paper, and waste treatment. If Canada does not use the new technologies, other countries will, and some of our present industries will cease to be competitive.”

For that reason, Ottawa last summer announced that the development of biotechnology was a major national goal, with $122 million to be devoted to construction, research and development over the next two years. The federal government has already committed $60 million to construct the Montreal Biotechnology Institute, with another $6 million being used to expand the Saskatoon Plant Biotechnology Institute. At the same time, a 25-member National Biotechnology Advisory Committee under the auspices of the ministry of state for science and technology (MOSST) links university and government scientists with industries.

In general, scientists who work with biotechnology consider it to be a safe area of scientific inquiry. Commented

microbiologist David Shindler, secretary of the MOSST biotechnology committee: “On balance, I think it is a very benign technology. It is a very helpful technology and one that is based on natural, living processes.” As to popular fears that genetically engineered bacteria could run rampant or turn into an “Andromeda Strain,” biotechnologists insist it would be virtually impossible.

But those assurances have not mollified some opponents. Said U.S. author and social commentator Jeremy Rifkin, biotechnology’s most vocal critic: “Just because biotechnology is green and organic does not mean it is safe.” Rifkin added that he is concerned about the present use of biotechnology by the U.S. government to make weapons for germ warfare and also about the unknown, long-term environmental consequences of combining genes from different species-known as recombinant dna—as well as the creation of new genes in the laboratory. Said Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C.: “In recombinant DNA scientists have a powerful tool that can put the genes of an oak tree into a weed, the genes of a human being into a bacterium. It is a tool that can unravel the intricate ecological relationships of living systems that have developed over millions of years.” Rifkin says it is possible that frost-resistant bacteria, like the one specially engineered to resist cold in California, could be accidentally released in Canada and damage northern plants that require a freezing period in order to grow. “Canadians complain about acid rain, but they haven’t seen

anything yet,” Rifkin told Maclean's. “Micro-organisms know no national borders and they multiply. DDT is probably the little leagues compared to biotechnology.”

For their part, many molecular biologists, geneticists and microbiologists who work in biotechnology actively criticize Rifkin. Their descriptions of him

range from “an alarmist” to “a nonscientist.” Daniel Adams, the chairman of Connecticut-based Advanced Genetic Sciences (AGS), described Rifkin as “an irrelevant person.” Still, Rifkin is not alone. Several environmentalist groups claim to share his concerns, and many scientists believe that his cautionary attitude is a healthy one. Declared University of Toronto zoologist Jacques Berger: “I want to see proof positive that the widespread release of genetically modified organisms will have no detrimental effects. Once the bugs are out of the bag and into the field, it is absolutely impossible to get them back in.”

Still, until scientists have gained experience with the new organisms in the environment, it may be impossible to discover their exact effects. Said biologist and science commentator David Suzuki, who stressed that he is not a member of the Rifkin camp: “There has been no technology in this century —however beneficial—that has not had a detrimental consequence. I can predict with absolute certainty that there will be a price to pay with biotechnology also. It will probably be something out of left field, and we will not know what it is until it has happened.”

Most important, the debate over what genetically engineered forms of life will do in the field is no longer theoretical. In all probability U.S. industry has been quietly testing manmade organisms in the field for some time. Nor is the debate confined to the United States. When Judge John J. Sir-

ica of the federal district court in Washington, D.C., prohibited university scientists from field testing so-called “iceminus,” or bacteria that would render plants frost resistant in California last May, within weeks the ice-minus developers filed an application for testing the same organism with Agriculture Canada.

The U.S. court case began when Rifkin and other environmentalists sued the National Institutes of Health, which, through its recombinant DNA advisory committee, has been the only arbiter of U.S. gene-splicing experiments which are financed by the federal government. Rifkin charged that the NIH approved

the ice-minus experiments (and two others for the field testing of genetically engineered corn and tobacco) without requesting an environmental risk assessment ahead of time. Such reports, Rifkin claimed, are required under existing U.S. law. Sirica came down on the side of the environmentalists. He issued a preliminary injunction against the release of the bacteria into the environment until the case comes to trial. He also prohibited the NIH from considering any further proposals involving the release of engineered organisms. Sirica’s decision has in effect enforced a delay on wider official testing of the fruits of biotechnology. But because the NIH does not have jurisdiction over the research of private U.S. companies, some scientists and firms are not prepared to wait until a final judgment by the courts. Commented Daniel Adams of AGS:

“What we have here is one guy who convinced one judge—and it is a lowercourt judge—to issue an injunction.” The NIH and the University of California at Berkeley are appealing Sirica’s decision, Adams added, and “we fully expect their appeal to succeed.”

According to molecular biologist Elizabeth Milewski, an assistant to the director of the office of recombinant DNA at the NIH, most companies are under some pressure to report to the NIH “because, in case of future litigation, it would not be viewed in their favor if they had not complied with guidelines.” But AGS’S Adams implied in an interview that his company is conducting

independent field tests. When asked whether the company had tested iceminus in the field, Adams replied: “As a public company we cannot get into releasing information every time we conduct a field experiment—we would have to issue six or eight press releases per day. All I can tell you is that our research program is going forward. No one has told us to stop.” In fact, AGS has its own in-house ice-minus bacterium, which, according to Adams, is a different organism than the Berkeley bacterium. Although neither the federal department nor AGS would reveal the name of the Canadian company that applied for permission to import iceminus and field test it in Canada, Adams said, “Frost is really a problem in Canada. We discussed this with several Canadian companies, and one of them applied for a permit.”

In light of the growing controversy, regulatory bodies on both sides of the border are in disorder. Faced with its first application to import and field test a genetically modified organism, Agriculture Canada has decided to process the application to test ice-minus —which it defines as a pesticide—like any other: through review procedures which are time-consuming and stringent. But approval may take even longer than usual because, according to William Stewart, the insecticide evaluation officer who received the ice-minus bacterium application, “Everybody will have to sit down and look carefully at the existing guidelines.”

While government agencies consider controls, the biotech industry is taking a cautious approach to additional research and development. Allelix, Inc. of Mississauga, Ont., Canada’s largest biotechnology company, for one, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Said company president Alan Bates: “Quite frankly, with all the questions raised about regulations, we are not going to begin modifying any organisms for environmental use until we know what the Canadian and U.S. governments are going to do about field tests.” (Bates vigorously denied that Allelix was the Canadian company that had applied for the ice-minus permit.)

It will not be the first time in its short history that biotechnology has reached a pivotal point and stalled. In 1974 scientists themselves called for a moratorium on recombinant DNA research until guidelines for laboratory containment procedures were established. At that time scientists worried in part that new cancer-causing organisms could get loose in laboratories or spill into the surroundings. But a decade later those fears have largely subsided because no serious accidents have occurred.

Some scientists consider the current concern over the danger of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment to be equally groundless. Predicted Chakrabarty: “My feeling after working with micro-organisms for so long is that there are not going to be any large-scale hazards at all. I just wish things would move faster and we could get some clear guidelines from government.” But effective guidelines take time to formulate, and most scientists, including Chakrabarty, agree that despite the tremendous promise of biotechnology it is essential to be safe now rather than face a disaster in the future. In weighing hypothetical benefits against hypothetical risks, it is “always best to err strongly on the side of conservatism,” said Suzuki. He added: “If there is a question mark, let things sit a while to see if that question mark becomes smaller.” The price of error could be disastrously high.