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Government probes gene-splice test.

Government probes gene-splice test

"Greenhouse" experiments on genetically engineered bacteria injected into fruit and nut trees were among the tests reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in making its decision last year to issue a permit to scientists at Advanced Genetic Sciences, Inc. (AGS) of Oakland, Calif., for the first field test of a genetically engineered organism (SN: 11/23/85, p. 324). But EPA did not know that these prior experiments on about 50 trees were not performed in a greenhouse, as the company had implied, but in the open air on the roof of the AGS building.

The company admits to the outdoor tests, which were disclosed last week in the Washington Post, but says its scientists acted in "good faith" because they did not consider the experiment to be an "environmental release" subject to EPA approval. EPA says the tests violated the federal requirement that the agency be notified before any field tests of genetically altered microbial pesticides. The U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Science and Technology held a hearing March 4 to find out "how these events could have occurred."

"It's a scandal," says Jeremy Rifkin of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation on Economic Trends. "It is a black day for the [biotechnology] industry."

Rifkin expects a court decision this week on his challenge to the AGS field-test permit. Meanwhile, the field tests--which were planned for early this spring--have been delayed by officials of Monterey County, where the proposed test plot is located (SN: 1/25/86, p. 56). In the field test, a plot of strawberry plants is to be sprayed with bacteria, which AGS calls Frostban, from which scientists have removed the gene responsible for triggering ice formation during light frosts.

The company showed "a real lack of wisdom" in not seeking EPA approval of the rooftop tests, John Bedbrook of AGS told the House committee. "With hindsight," the company now can see the EPA position, he says, and will "conduct our future work accordingly." But Bedbrook argues that the rooftop tests were as safe as those performed in a greenhouse, since the microbes were first contained within a syringe and then injected into the trees themselves. However, no provisions were made to prevent insects from picking up the sap.

EPA has not specified criteria for laboratories and greenhouses, but the agency says tests are to be conducted in facilities designed to prevent dispersal of microbes. "We don't regard a tree as a contained facility," says Steven Schatzow of EPA.

In the next month, EPA plans a "full investigation of all allegations involving AGS," Schatzow told the House hearing. The agency will conduct "an audit of AGS records and facilities," he says. "The agency has no evidence at this time to suggest that the AGS data are invalid or to call into question the agency's finding that a limited field test would not result in any foreseeable risk to human health or the environment."

The House committee questioned both Bedbrook and Schatzow about a statement obtained from a former AGS technician suggesting that the testing procedure for the rooftop trees was not adequate and that damage to the trees was not reported to EPA. Bedbrook said he could not explain the details of the testing procedure because he is not a plant pathologist. "But I have no question about the validity of the results reported to EPA," he says. Schatzow says that if the EPA investigation provides evidence that Frostban is a plant pathogen, EPA may withdraw or alter its permit.
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Author:Miller, Julie Ann
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 8, 1986
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