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Two scientists at the University of California at Berkeley received permission from the NIH (National Institute of Health) advisory committee to perform a rather simple test using specially engineered bacteria, Pseudomonas syringae. Pseudomonas live as parasites in the leaves of many plants. When the temperature falls to freezing (00C), these bacteria produce a protein upon which ice crystals can form. The frost damages the plant, then the bacteria feed on the frost-damaged tissues. Plants free of Pseudomonas can, for brief periods, withstand temperatures as low as -1 50C before being harmed.
The two scientists, Steven Lindow and Nickolas Panopoulos, produced Pseudomonas without the gene that codes for the "culprit" protein. They intended to spray them on crops in sufficient quantity to drive out the normal bacteria. This would prevent crop losses in the event of unseasonal frosts. It would also extend the growing season and increase production.
The scientists had used these techniques very successfully in greenhouse experiments. They wanted to spray an agricultural field to determine if their technique would really work.
One citizen, Jeremy Rifkin, thought that releasing organisms altered by gene splicing could endanger public health and the environment. He campaigned against all recombinant DNA research. He equated such research with Nazi eugenics. He was aware of the medical and scientific gains attributed to DNA research, but he remained totally against it.
In 1977, Rifkin sought an injunction against the Berkeley researchers to prohibit them from releasing the bacteria. Much to the surprise of the scientists, shock might be a better word, Judge John J. Sirica complied with Rifkin's request. Sirica also directed the NIH not to consider proposals for experiments involving the release of engineered organisms into the environment.
Judge Sirica raised two significant questions during the proceedings:
Did the NIH, in granting permission to Lindow and Panopoulos to conduct the experiment, assess the risks involved as required by federal laws?
Should society (that is, the courts), rather than the scientific community, regulate the growing field of biotechnology?
Until now, the NIH advisory committee had been the sole judge on any issues dealing with gene splicing experiments funded by the government. Private companies did not have to go through this committee. However, many companies did voluntarily seek clearance from the committee.
In making his judgment, what did Judge Sirica imply about the job done by NIH's DNA advisory committee?
From your reading, how well do you think the DNA advisory committee had performed? Explain your answer.
During the hearing, both sides tried to get the judge to listen to expert testimony. Judge Sirica refused, maintaining that he was not there to judge science but to determine whether the NIH had followed required procedures. That is, did the NIH, as Rifkin charged, violate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires federal officials to file environmental impact statements before approving "action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment."
Some scientists, while not pleased with the ruling, felt that the hearing had raised some significant issues. The following are observations from scientific experts:
"There is an appropriate time and place for public debate on
the introduction of genetic engineering techniques in our society. However, by
vastly exaggerating the possibility of a genetic catastrophe, Rifkin obscured
any legitimate concerns the public may have."
-Frederick Ausubel, Genetics Professor, Harvard Medical School
"To agree that is a new life-form (Lindow and Panopoulos'
genetically engineered Pseudomonas) and is capable of upsetting a delicate
ecological balance is to suggest that two individuals who differ in an eye color
gene are different life-forms, or that an individual who is treated with a drug
to protect against the action of a deleterious gene product will upset nature's
-Paul Berg, Geneticist, Stanford University, Nobel Prize winner for pioneering work in recombinant DNA
"Recombinant DNA technology is a tool, no more moral or immoral
than electricity, fire, or the hammer. Let's not allow misguided fears to deny
its benefits to ourselves and posterity."
-Harold Slavkin, Biochemist, University of Southern California
"The release of gene-spliced microorganisms into the
environment at this stage, before any type of assessment has been made, would be
-Liebe Cavalieri, Biochemist, Sloan-Kettering Institute
"... The historical record shows severe problems have resulted
when alien species have been imported into the United States. The Japanese
beetle and gypsy moth have caused great problems. Genetically-engineered
organisms could do the same...altered bacteria could get into the atmosphere and
eventually change the climate by retarding the formation of ice
-David Pimentel, Ecologist, Cornell University
"I continue to believe that the factors need to be considered
carefully, but if I were a member of the RAC (Recombinant DNA Advisory
Committee), I would vote to allow these experiments to
-Peter Raven, Botanist, Washington University, St. Louis
The approved test not only presents no threat to the
environment, but the approach to be used is environmentally one of the least
disruptive known for the protection of plants against harmful
-James Cook, Plant Pathologist, U.S. Department of Agriculture
With which statements do you agree?
With which do you think Judge Sirica would agree?
Judge Sirica ruled against genetic engineering research. Do you agree with him?