New Questions From the New Biology

Because a disaster has not yet occurred does not mean that it could not happen sometime in the future. There have been at least two outbreaks of smallpox in England since it was officially eradicated there by the World Health Organization, due to poor laboratory technique and inadequate containment facilities. Stocks of this virus remain in several known locations around the world, including the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, and it is probable that secret military stockpiles also exist, but for obvious reasons, there are few sources of vaccine remaining or of individuals who are immune. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a similar situation could arise from genetic manipulations, but we are even less prepared for that eventuality than for the reintroduction of smallpox into the world.

In the mid-seventies, scientists involved in the development of genetic technology met in Asilomar, California. They were concerned about the implications of this kind of work, and the possible threat to humanity and to the environment it posed. They agreed to a moratorium on all such research until its full implications had been studied, but because this agreement was not unanimous, the moratorium lasted about as long as it took the scientists to get back to their laboratories. More recently, a group of scientists from Harvard and MIT attempted to get the Cambridge city council to pass a law preventing such research within the city limits. This, too, failed, but the animosities aroused between those in favor of this work and those opposed to it remain to poison the collegiality of a number of departments at both universities.

The risks and benefits posed by the current state of recombinant DNA technology do not, as such, constitute a philosophical problem so much as an environmental one. The potential problems discussed above are essentially of the same type as those created by any disease-related research or by the production of hazardous wastes (chemical or radioactive). Like these more familiar threats, the risks involved in recombinant DNA technology can be minimized or eliminated by the proper controls and facilities, as well as by strong and consistent enforcement of the rules. Contained within the current state of the art, however, are the seeds of what will someday soon be a more fundamental problem.

Recombinant DNA Technology: Better living through gene manipulation

Many “diseases” are actually not diseases at all, but genetic problems. Either a gene product is not made or the gene product is aberrant; in either case, this results in disorders which can be extremely severe. Phenylketonuria, for example, is a genetic disorder of the metabolism: phenylalanine, an amino acid, is not converted to tyrosine, another amino acid; because of the buildup of phenylalanine, alternative metabolic pathways are used, and other products are made in nonphysiological excess. If not identified at birth, this condition can cause extreme mental retardation (note the warnings to phenylketonurics on products containing Nutrasweet). Newborns are now routinely screened for this condition and, where found, the affected individual must maintain a restricted diet for life. Other genetic disorders include sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, many forms of muscular dystrophy, and vitamin B-12 deficiency. In addition, there is increasing evidence that predisposition to certain forms of cancer may also be genetic.