Genetic Breakthroughs

January 10, 1986

Report Outline
Regulating Biotechnology
Reshaping Agriculture
Disease-Control Potential
Special Focus

Regulating Biotechnology

Taking First New Life Form Out of Lab

Sometime early this year an invisible organism, nicknamed “ice minus” by its creators, will make history—provided a federal judge doesn't bar the lab door. For the first time ever, scientists plan to take a new life form out of the laboratory and release it in the environment. After months of study, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the release last November, saying it expected no harm to come from the experiment.

It involves a genetically altered strain of bacteria that, in its natural state, is almost everywhere. The altered version, created by Advanced Genetic Sciences Inc. of Oakland, Calif., lacks a protein that is essential for ice crystals to form. Its mission is to keep frost from forming on a small field of strawberry plants in Salinas Valley. As unspectacular as the experiment may seem, it has been hailed as the dawning of a new age in biotechnology. After more than a decade of experimentation in the laboratory, genetic engineering of living organisms finally is ready to emerge as a force capable of reshaping the natural world.

But there are some who contend we are not ready to let the genie out of the bottle. Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, is the most prominent among them. He has filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C., to block the ice-minus experiment. Rifkin sued the University of California in 1983 to halt a similar experiment, and since then tests of living biotech products have been on hold. The latest action challenges both the regulatory process that led to authorization of the experiment and its environmental safety.

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