The biotech watchers

The recent announcement that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intends to regulate the nascent biotechnology industry is very much a sign of the times.

The legal basis evidently is the EPA's mandate to regulate toxic substances, which has been taken to mean chemical substances. Whether the living organisms themselves or just their chemical products thus fall within EPA jurisdiction seems ill-defined at this point.

Nevertheless, the mere fact that the EPA feels impelled to take the step shows how far and how fast industrial use of genetic engineering has already come.

In one sense, ''biotech'' industry is as old as the use of yeast. But the new technology goes beyond the use of fermentation and other natural microbial processes to employing redesigned microbes to do such unnatural things as make human insulin or neutralize toxic wastes.

Whether, or how, genetically altered microbes could become an environmental hazard is largely unknown. But, as an EPA official observed, the agency wants ''to get ahead of the game.''

There may also be unsuspected side effects that early monitoring could control. For example, waste products from biotechnical manufacturing might become new pollutants. Even as ''clean'' an industry as electronics has begun polluting ground water with wastes from semiconductor processing. Such matters are clearly EPA's concern.

Thus the agency is wise to begin monitoring biotechnology at an early stage in its development. At the same time, it should coordinate its action with that of other agencies interested in regulating genetic engineering, such as the National Institutes of Health.

It would be unfortunate if biotechnology regulation should become a tangle of conflicting and overlapping rules issued independently by various agencies. Both the administration and Congress should ensure that this new field of regulation develops in a coordinated way and with a unifying common policy.

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