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An open airing of the gene-splice debate.

An open airing of the gene-splice debate

"Not to live in the cellar because we fear a tornado, but rather to keep a hurricane watch' was the goal of a meeting of geneticists and ecologists in Philadelphia last week, as described by the opening speaker, Peter R. Day of the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, England. The geneticists are eager to proceed with small-scale field tests of several engineered microorganisms (SN: 5/4/85, p. 280), while the ecologists are generally more reluctant to see such bacteria released into the environment.

The intent of the meeting was stated most concretely by Susan Gottesman of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.: "We want some sense of the minimal information needed before small-scale field tests are begun, and also the minimal information needed from such tests before there is any commercial use.'

Last week's gathering, the largest multidisciplinary meeting to be focused on this issue, was organized by the American Society for Microbiology, in collaboration with seven other organizations of biologists, and it received funding from a variety of federal agencies that either support research in genetic engineering or expect to play a part in its regulation.

In the meeting's discussion, Philip J. Regal of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and other ecologists charged that genetic engineers are employing out-dated theories in their analyses of the potential impact of new organisms on the environment. For instance, the argument that every genetic combination has at some time been employed already in nature is not valid, Regal says, because the number of combinations in complex animals is far too great. Another argument cited by geneticists is that because mutations disrupting genes generally reduce an organism's ability to survive in nature, any genetic engineering, including the adding of genes, also will decrease survival potential and reduce the chance of any adverse environmental impact. Regal says, "That is like saying stepping on someone's lunch is the same as adding a banana to it.'

The greatest objections come to the idea of "the balance of nature'--that communities of organisms are so well adapted to each other and their physical environment that no novel organism would be likely to disturb the balance. "Most ecologists don't refer to niches any more. . . . It is really an antiquated concept,' Regal says. "There is no reason at this point to believe a species is so highly perfected that nothing can replace it.'

"The lesson from ecology,' says Regal, "is that one must be careful not to oversimplify what to expect from nature.' Beyond this sense of caution, however, ecology today does not offer general principles that would allow geneticists to predict what will happen to an organism that is released. But ecologist Daniel Simberloff of Florida State University in Tallahassee says "there is no reason why [ecology] couldn't provide lots of specific predictions. . . . Understanding [a specific environmental situation] is very accessible to detailed research, work about the equivalent of a Ph.D. thesis.'

A case-by-case analysis of proposed field tests of genetically engineered organisms was much lauded by both ecologists and geneticists, although some still held out for more general rules. Henry Miller of the Food and Drug Administration says, "Case-by-case analysis is a totem receiving much reverence but little reflection. It should be possible to devise guidelines to identify low-risk or trivialrisk situations.'

The participants also discussed a Catch-22 of environmental release. Many people argue that field tests should be prohibited until solid predictions can be made. Yet a variety of biologists presented evidence from introductions of foreign and traditionally altered species that laboratory and greenhouse experiments simply don't predict well the behavior of an organism in the field.

"There is a way out. The multistage test approach can be used, beginning with small-scale, isolated test plots with means to monitor [the surroundings],' Edward A. Adelberg of Yale University says. "We must get permission to move to well-contained but outdoor field plots.'

While the meeting certainly produced no consensus on how to prepare for and perform environmental release experiments, Harlyn O. Halvorson of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., says, "People who have been talking past one another have now started talking to each other.'
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Author:Miller, Julie Ann
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 22, 1985
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