New Questions From the New Biology

These current research activities all have praiseworthy goals – production of scarce biomedical materials (enzymes, hormones, etc.), cleanup and preservation of the environment, and basic studies of intrinsic natural mechanisms. At the present time, some of this work has run into technical difficulties. In some cases, when the gene from a higher organism is transferred into a microorganism, it does not seem to be “read” properly, resulting in the production of proteins that do not work. In other cases, the transfer is successful, but the new strain created is either unstable or not particularly viable. Both of these difficulties have been used by recombinant DNA technologists as arguments for the easing of controls on such research, along with a third argument – that such recombinations occur in nature and have not yet destroyed the environment or a given specIes.

Currently, recombinant DNA research guidelines are formulated by the National Institutes of Health, which can enforce them ONLY for research supported financially by them. These guidelines are extremely anthropocentric, placing strict controls on manipulation of human genes, and relaxing the rules as the genes become phylogenetically more distant from the human. It should also be noted that the present NIH guidelines are much less strict, even for human genes, than they were only a few years ago. The techniques are so well documented and worked out that recombinant DNA manipulations have become “cookbook” procedures that are often performed by technicians, technical assistants, and even college undergraduates. Kits containing all the necessary enzymes and instructions for use can be purchased from a number of companies, and are being used in teaching laboratories at a relatively low undergraduate level as well as in research labs.

Like any other scientific advance, the development of recombinant DNA technology has its good and bad aspects. The production of needed biological products, such as human insulin and human growth hormone, is a tremendously important advance both for the increased availability of scarce medical resources and for the design of new strategies of treatment for infants and children with deficient endocrine systems. It also provides the hope of an answer to the ever more threatening problem of the poisoning of the environment, especially our water systems. On the other side of the coin is a Frankensteinian nightmare of microorganisms running amok and destroying the very things they were designed to preserve. E. coli, the microorganism generally chosen for genetic modification, lives in a human’s large intestine and is involved in food metabolism. (The often-experienced diarrhea associated with a course of antibiotic treatment is due to the antibiotic killing off the E. coli and other needed intestinal flora.) If a modified variation of E. coli is also viable and escapes from a laboratory, it could wipe out a large segment, if not all, of humanity. Humanity could also be destroyed, along with the rest of the biosphere, by any other viable microorganism which, when released, interferes with one or another segment of the food chain; this threat is what makes the anthropocentrism of the NIH guidelines so potentially dangerous.