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Milky cows, red tomatoes and human pigs.

Take an eerie bit of Frankenstein, mix liberally with a dash of The Andromeda Strain or The Stand.

What you get is most folks' nightmares about the mixing and matching that is occurring in genetics laboratories around the world.

Outside fiction, genetics has gained its most recent prominence from the federal Human Genome Project, started by Congress in 1989 as a 15-year study to map and identify human genes. But genetic testing has been around since the '60s when it was used to identify newborns with phenylketonuria (PKU), an inherited metabolic disease that, untreated, can lead to severe mental retardation.

Actually, it all really began in the mid-1800s with a monk named Mendel and his peas (wrinkled, smooth, green and yellow), but the flamework for the amazing scientific leaps of today came together in 1953 when scientists discovered that the mysteries of life were intertwined in the microscopic strands of a spiraling double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that form the 23 matched chromosomes of the human body.

The technology exploded from there. With advances in technology and biochemistry giving them more powerful microscopes and greater insights, scientists began mapping the genes--the 100,000 or so fragments of DNA strung like little beads up and down those chromosomes that tell our cells what to do and how to behave. Chemical messengers that race from cell to cell, genes can become broken, mutated or simply relay faulty information for reasons unknown that results in a variety of disorders--from cancer to some types of diabetes to cystic fibrosis to hemophilia to muscular dystrophy.

Those same genes can not only be measured, dyed, isolated and identified--they can be diced, spliced, split, mutated and generally messed with by man.

As if potential genetic screening of humans by insurers and employers was not enough of a headache for state law-makers--the crop of transgenic critters, spliced genes and altered plants have provided new dilemmas.

Just ask Wisconsin.

The dairy state has been facing a major uproar over the use of recombinant bovine somatotropin--rBST for short--a genetically engineered version of a cow's hormone that regulates the amount of milk she produces. By inserting that gene in bacteria and growing it in vast vats--much like you'd brew beer--Monsanto Company has been able to create enough rBST to sell to farmers by the dose. The marketing focus is that it can increase milk production up to 20 percent.

Even though the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared rB-ST safe, some consumers are not thrilled with the new genetic technology. And neither are some farmers. The United States has generally had an overabundance of milk (the government buys it up to help out the dairy industry), and small farmers worry about what 20 percent more milk is going to do to the market.

Then there are other activists who just don't want the possibility of bacteria-grown genes in their food supplies. Opponents also contend that the increased production could lead to greater infections of the udder, such as mastitis. Those inflammations, they say, would be treated with antibiotics, which could contaminate the milk.

Wisconsin legislators passed a bill this spring permitting milk from untreated cows to be labeled as rBST-free if the product comes with affidavits stating the producers don't use the synthetic hormone. School districts in the state have allowed children to opt for fruit juices at lunch instead of milk. Vermont and Maine also have passed laws regarding milk labeling.

Chicago's school board voted in March to purchase milk only from suppliers who used untreated cows. And at least 36 other school boards have moved to ban milk from cows given rBST injections.

Unfortunately, rBST-free labeling will have to rely on producers' claims. No test can show any difference between milk from treated and untreated cows.

Surprisingly, there wasn't quite this much reaction to the first genetically engineered food put on the market (rB-ST was the second). Chymosin, a bio-engineered enzyme, is used to make about half the nation's cheese and was approved for use two years ago.

Then comes the tomato.

Calgene Inc. received approval this spring from the FDA for its genetically engineered tomato. The fruit has an added gene (provided by scientists) that helps prevent rotting. The genetic engineering allows the tomato to ripen on the vine and still reach store shelves in good condition. (Normally, because tomatoes turn bad so quickly, they are picked hard and green, shipped, then treated with ethylene gas to turn them red just before they're put out in supermarket displays.)

Although the company was not required by law to get FDA approval for its tomato, it sought the federal OK, in part, to allay consumer fears over the genetically engineered fruit.

Again, opponents are asking that the tomato be labeled. And Calgene has agreed to a voluntary labeling program.

Tomatoes that don't rot, oceans of milk...the field of agricultural biotechnology offers amazing vistas--engineering the nutritional content of crops to improve diets worldwide, changing the genetic composition of plants to make everything from biodegradable plastic to human insulin, growing plants designed to be completely resistant to disease, drought or insects...

Enter the dark side.

Scientists have already spliced trout genes in carp and even a human gene into a pig embryo--yes, transgenic pigs are being produced that contain implanted human genes. The hope is the animals will provide organs for human transplants, and the genes will keep those organs from being rejected by the human body.

Such tinkering, critics say, could open the gates to catastrophe. Will crops bred to make their own, natural insecticide present risks to other creatures? Could genetically altered plants mutate into "Frankenstein weeds," creeping across the landscape like the ubiquitous kudzu in the South? And, will all this largesse still be safe to eat? And how about those crazy diseases that Stephen King and Michael Crichton were talking about?

Each genetic discovery--plant, animal or human--brings new and weightier questions. And at this point laws are not keeping pace with those advances.
COPYRIGHT 1994 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:genetic technology
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Aug 1, 1994
Previous Article:Genes r us.
Next Article:Legislatures hit cyberspace.

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