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Coming a Cropper New Scientist 4 Apr 98

Genetic Engineering - Dream or Nightmare? Mae-Wan Ho

'A critical genetic meltdown will occur if biotechnology stays on its present course'

WRITERS of popular books on genetic engineering have adopted an upbeat tone recently. Titles such as Remaking Eden and Improving Nature seem almost utopian in their views, and it would be easy to conclude from their accounts that this new array of technology deserves public support. Yet many people outside the science community remain deeply anxious about genetic engineering. The story of Britain's BSE epidemic, where common sense was abandoned in favour of what now seems to have been recklessness, casts a long shadow over the biotechnology industry. Genetic Engineering aims to put the potential risks of gene technologies under a new spotlight. Polemical and often controversial, Mae-Wan Ho calls for the whole of what she calls "bad science" to be rejected, as the public generally opposed atomic energy because of the risk of accidents and the problem of disposing of radioactive waste. Forty years ago, nuclear technology was in a analogous position to that of genetic engineering today. Little was known about its risks in peacetime use and most scientists were confident that its power could be safely tamed for the benefit of humanity. Today, gene experts now confidently predict that the release of hundreds of species of genetically modified crops during the next decade will pose no significant risk. Using the Cold War imagery of a nuclear wmter, Ho predicts that if biotechnology continues along its present course, a "critical genetic meltdown" will occur, bringing about "the end of humanity as we know it". This is an extreme view, but less apocalyptic objections to biotechnology have been widely publicised during the past few years. Until recently, corporations such as Monsanto have believed that their vision for the future could be made reality by the stealthy infusion of genetically engineered tomatoes and soya beans into our diet. But public opposition has forced firms to reassess their aggressive promotion of genetically modified foods. Last month, for example, a major British supermarket chain decided to respond to public fears about genetically engineered food by banning it from the shelves. And regulatory bodies have criticised the research conditions of genetically engineered crops (see This Week, 4 April, p 4). Ambitious and wide-ranging in her scope, Ho presents her case against genetic engineering in a disjointed collection of essays. Although she describes a range of worrying genetic techniques, such as those that led to Dolly the sheep, Ho stops short of providing much detailed analysis. The exception is her treatment of genetic engineering in agriculture. She draws three striking conclusions. First, Ho believes that genetic changes intended to increase crop yields are fundamentally incompatible with sustainable development. She suggests that developments such as herbicide-resistant soya and potatoes that produce a bacterial insecticide encourage the expansion of the monocultures characteristic of intensive farming. Such practices are both ecologically and socially damaging. She accuses transnational corporations of using genetic engineering to maintain their chemicals sales while promoting a form of agriculture ever more destructive of local ecosystems. Ho dismisses the biotechnology industry's claims that genetic engineering is the only way to feed the world's growing population. Her examples from the developing world suggest that they offer the only model for agriculture that remains viable for hundreds of years, rather than tens. Her second criticism of genetic engineering in agriculture is that it is reckless. Scientists probably know as little about the risks of genetic engineering as they did about the risks of radiation in the 1950s. Unlike radioactivity, once genetic pollution has been released into hie environment, it could, says Ho, spread by itself among living organisms like a viral infection. Such ideas may seem fanciful, but they certainly raise questions about the biotech industry's opposition to new precautionary steps that might delay a product reaching the market. Although she refers repeatedly to agricultural genetics as "scientifically flawed" (her third criticism), Ho does not explain why and how it is flawed. She condemns the reductionism inherent in genetic engineering, but she cannot yet draw on a comprehensive alternative framework with which to view biological systems. But such new thinking is developing on the fringes of mainstream biology.

One important contribution is A Question of Genes (Floris Books, ISBN 0863152392), which sketches the implications of using what Craig Holdredge calls "contextual thinking" for our way of thinking about living things. Traditionally, "object thinking" has been characteristic of biology, suggests Holdredge: biologists study clearly defined entities such as genes, organs and character traits. Contextual or fluid thinking, by contrast, looks at transformations, and at the relations between objects. There are no isolated objects in biology, he says. The meanings of biological entities comes as much from their relationships with other entities as from the objects themselves. Holdredge illustrates the use of contextual thinking using studies of plant structure. While every species has a characteristic structure that enables us to tell one species from another, each also has elements of plasticity that tell us about the environment in which the plant has grown. The shape and arrangement of a plant's leaves and roots can reveal its health and the characteristics of the soil in which it grew. Combining such fluid perspectives with more traditional thinking could, he suggests, produce a much richer understanding of biological systems. Holdredge also uses his contextual approach to criticise some applications of gene technologies to humans. When prenatal diagnosis reveals a genetic defect, the parents' wealth of expectations about their new baby is destroyed, he suggests. They are encouraged to picture a child doomed to be a burden to society. Instead of the baby being part of a network of thoughts and feelings, it has been transformed into an object. The most striking aspect of the new biotechnologies is how little opportunity ordinary citizens have had to debate and direct them. Whether their application produces genetically engineered food or terminated pregnancies, funding for research is allocated by expert committees and the results are applied with only cursory attempts at democratic participation. With the British government about to launch a public consultation on new developments in biology, these two books show that there are many useful contributions to the gene debate from outside the mainstream. There is more than one possible future for biotechnology.

From: "M.W.Ho (Maewan Ho)" <[email protected]

Scientists Link Gene Technology to Resurgence of Infectious Diseases
Call for Independent Enquiry


A review appearing in the scientific Journal, Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease* suggests links between commercial gene technology and the recent accelerated resurgence of drug and antibiotic resistant infectious diseases.

At the heart of the issue is horizontal gene transfer - the transfer of genes by vectors such as viruses and other infectious agents - which is exploited by genetic engineers to make transgenic organisms. While natural vectors respect species barriers, the barrage of artificial vectors made by genetic engineers are designed to cross species barriers, thus greatly enhancing the potential for creating new viral and bacterial pathogens, and spreading drug and antibiotic resistance. Totally unrelated pathogens are now showing up with identical virulence and antibiotic resistance genes.

Recent statistics are frightening. Infectious diseases were responsible for 1/3 of the 52 million deaths from all causes in 1995. Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis is now estimated to affect 10 million each year with 3 million deaths. At least 50 new viruses attacking humans emerged between 1988 and 1996. Between 1986 and 1996, E. coli 0157:H7 infections increased by 10-fold in England and Wales and 100-fold in Scotland. Vancomycin resistance rose from 3% to 95% in San Francisco hospitals in the four years between 1993 and 1997. And Staphyloccocus (toxic shock syndrome) is now invulnerable to all known antibiotics.

The first genetic engineers called for a moratorium in the Asilomar Declaration of 1975, precisely because they were afraid of inadvertently creating new viral and bacterial pathogens. The worst case scenario they envisaged may be taking shape. Commercial pressures led to regulatory guidelines based largely on untested assumptions, all of which have been invalidated by recent scientific findings. For example, biologically "crippled" laboratory strains of bacteria can often survive in the environment to exchange genes with other organisms. Genetic material (DNA) released from dead and living cells, far from being rapidly broken down, actually persists in the environment and transfer to other organisms. Naked viral DNA may be more infectious, and have a wider host range than the virus. Viral DNA resists digestion in the gut of mice, enter the blood stream to infect white blood cells, spleen and liver cells, and may even integrate into the mouse cell genome.

"We may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg," the scientists state, "There is an urgent need to tighten existing regulations." Instead, the EU is relaxing the guidelines on both deliberate release and contained use of GMOs. "That is an irresponsible move in the light of existing scientific knowledge." The Editor of the Journal is inviting other scientists to contribute to the debate.

Contact: Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Biology Department, Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA,
tel. 01908-653113, fax. 01908-654167, e-mail: [email protected]