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Gene Designers SINCE 1980, when the Supreme Court held that a genetically engineered organism could be patented, American and foreign companies have been investing in biotechnology, particularly agrigenetics, with a fervor. By 1982, 30 major American corporations were seriously involved; the number had risen to over 100 by 1984. Foremost among these corporations are the chemical companies. Lubrizol bought Agrigenetics, a biotechnology firm, for $110 million in 1984. Monsanto is heavily invested in Genentech, with which it has a joint development agreement to produce growth hormones for food animals. Monsanto also owns DeKalb’s hybrid wheat program and Hartz’s Seed Company. Dow Chemical is spending at least $40 million annually on crop . and livestock applications of biotechnology. Chevron has spent $35 million on a research center devoted to plant and pest related biotech research. DuPont has invested over $200 million in the last five years in agricultural biotech research.. Why this intensive investment in agricultural biotechnology? A spokesman for W.R. Grace, the nation’s fifth largest chemical company, said Grace wants to be ready to meet the future “because the heyday of hydrocarbon chemical in fields like herbicides and insecticides” might be ‘coming to an end. \(Grace is conducting the consideration might be that the world’s population is expected to increase by 50 percent over the next 20 years. Food production already a big business promises to become even bigger. By the year 2000, experts estimate the agrigenetics market will be worth between $50 to $100 billion. Today, seven percent of the country’s farms produce 56 percent of its food. Considering the consolidation of economic power that has been occurring throughout our food-producing system, gaining control of genetic power is a serious game with very high stakes. L.I.,, DNA of two different viruses and recombined their genetic material to create a totally new product. The splitting of the DNA molecule and the recombination of genetic material from different molecules was as important to the future of genetic engineering as the splitting of the atom was to nuclear technology. Genetic engineers began testing the possibility of manipulating the components of DNA in order to control the hereditary process. It was also in 1971 that scientists first considered the potential hazards of the research. Stanford’s Berg announced plans to insert a virus that caused tumors in animals into E. coli, a bacteria common to people. A fellow scientist, Robert Pollack, pointed out that if the E. coli were to escape the laboratory, it might infect people. While at first this risk seemed enormously remote to Berg, after six months of consideration, he chose not to pursue his plans. The possible danger of the experiment seemed to outweigh its benefits. The work of others continued, however, and in 1973, genetic manipulation became possible when two scientists found a way to transfer genes into the DNA of a bacteria that would multiply, each of the million offspring possessing and reproducing the foreign genetic characteristic. The controversy over the safety of these procedures ,intensified, and public fears escalated. What would happen if these new organisms got into the environment? Though most scientists dismissed the probability of contamination, few could deny that the possibility existed and that they could not predict the consequences. Scientists found themselves in a quandary. They had no formal organization to mediate differing viewpoints and determine the need for regulation. The government had never before regulated scientific research in this way because the value of freedom of inquiry had always outweighed any publicly perceived need for regulation. But now that scientists disagreed among themselves about the safety of the research procedures, there was a growing consensus that regulation might be inevitable. In 1974, some of the country’s most prominent biologists called for a moratorium on recombinant DNA research. For the next four years they intensely debated how to regulate genetic engineering. The result was the creation of the Recombinant DNA Molecule Program Advisory Committee by the Nacommittee was charged with establishing detailed, precise . guidelines that NIH and other agencies could use in granting research money. If scientists violate the guidelines, they face loss of their grant money. The NIH guidelines are not binding on private entities that do not receive federal funds. NIH suspects that McConnell and Kit have violated the requirement that scientists have the NIH committee determine the safety of an environmental release before the scientists field test a new recombinant DNA product. While the private sector does not have to follow NIH guidelines but only applies to EPA for permits, the publicly funded . work of McConnell and Kit does require NIH approval. Following such approval, the Environmental Protection Agency EPA has issued four such permits so far,, but three have run into problems. It revoked one upon finding that the biotech firm involved had secretly tested the gene-altered bacteria on trees on top on the firm’s building. A permit to test bacteria that inhibits frost is meeting public outcry: permission to use a site at Tulelake, California, for the test has so far been refused. The third permit is for Monsanto to test corn seed that excretes a corn worm poison. After issuing a permit, the EPA has stalled the process until it gets more data from the company. The one field test being conducted involves genetically altered tobacco. THE CONTROVERSY over genetic engineering is based on both environmental and ethical concerns. Thert is no way of knowing with certainty how a genetically altered organism will act in the environment. Will it duplicate, mutate, infect people, animals, or crops and take on virulent power? Will it interact with other organisms and over generations imperceptibly become a carcinogen? Will it upset the precarious ecological balance as have, for example, fire ants, gypsy moths, and kudzu vines? As has happened with nuclear and petrochemical technologies, genetic engineers have been obsessed with exploring the applications of biotechnology before developing a solid understanding of the potential impact of the technology on health and environment. Beyond the environmental consequences of genetic engineering, scientists have paid little attention to the ethical issues it raises. The technology THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13