GENETIC engineering is one of the most important scientific developments of the 20th century. It promises breakthroughs in agriculture, pest control, chemicals, and medicines. Yet people treat its products like produce from Chernobyl. Fear of the unknown, distrust of experts, and the agitations of activists who don't like genetic manipulation feed public uncertainty and inhibit progress. Lawsuits over license procedures or incomplete environmental impact assessments have brought promising tests to screeching halts. Even when these issues are resolved, local public opposition can remain a barrier.
The industry badly needs effective, streamlined federal regulation to reassure the public that its interests are protected. New administration guidelines assigning this responsibility to specific agencies will help. But it won't be enough to clear away public apprehension. Under these circumstances, biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin may well be right in saying that the industry's inability to get liability insurance in the present social climate is its Achilles' heel.
The case of the so-called ice-minus bacteria illustrates the problem. Few people doubt that the experiment is safe. Yet it has become a prototype case for biotech opponents.
The bacterium Pseudomonas syringae, which lives on leaves of such plants as strawberry and potato, makes a protein that encourages frost. Using genetic engineering techniques, bacteriologists can snip out the gene that enables the bacterium to make this protein. When batches of these ice-minus bacteria are sprayed on plants before natural bacteria become established, their colonies can crowd out their ice-forming cousins.
Plant pathologists Steven Lindow and Nickolas Panopoulos of the University of California (UC) at Berkeley thought this might help protect potatoes from frost damage in climatically marginal areas. They set up a 1984 field test at the UC Agricultural Experiment Station in Tulelake, Calif. But Jeremy Rifkin's Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends managed to hold up the tests with a procedural lawsuit.
Rifkin claimed that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) erred in permitting the experiment by not adequately probing its environmental impact. NIH later yielded authority over such tests to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has made its own assessment and now has approved the experiment. The lawsuit was dropped a few weeks ago.
Legally, UC scientists are free to go ahead with the test. But things are not that simple. The concern that Rifkin and other critics have stirred up now is reflected locally in California. When Advanced Genetic Sciences wanted to run a similar test in a strawberry field near Salinas, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors turned them down. Local residents and officials were miffed that the company had not bothered to consult them in its planning.
Lindow and Panopoulos have learned from AGS's mistake. This year they held a public meeting to explain their plans. Rifkin reportedly has claimed that more than 450 Tulelake residents oppose the test. But no such opposition surfaced in the meeting. At this writing, the experiment had not begun.
Even Rifkin has acknowledged the safety of the proposed test. But he and other opponents didn't want to see a precedent set for field testing genetically engineered organisms under what they consider at present an inadequate regulatory system. They have shown by action in other instances that they will try to block any use of genetically altered organisms for the same reason. Meanwhile, near Middleton, Wis., Agracetus has planted the first genetically altered crop -- a disease-resistant tobacco -- to test means of inserting useful genes into major crop plants. Earlier this year, the Department of Agriculture had approved the use of a genetically engineered swine vaccine.
As things now stand, EPA regulates pesticides and organisms released for field testing. The Department of Agriculture deals with organisms that may also be plant or animal pests. The Food and Drug Administration handles foods, food additives, and medicines.
At this writing, President Reagan was expected to sign an administrative document that would formalize this division of authority, eliminate overlapping responsibilities among the agencies, and spell out detailed regulatory rules.
This will help. But it won't fully meet public concern. Genetic engineering is not just another chemical or agricultural tool. It's a deeply significant breakthrough to a new order of manipulation of organic life at its most basic level. The public won't be satisfied with piecemeal regulation of such an awesome new capability. It wants comprehensive regulation which will enable the new biotechnology to develop in environmentally safe ways right from the beginning.
The industry itself recognizes this. While Allen Goldhammer of the Industrial Biotechnology Association welcomes the new rules as ``a good start,'' he warns that new laws and perhaps a new regulatory system are needed.
And that's a job for the US Congress.
A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor. HOW BACTERIA CAUSE FROST
Bacteria that promote freezing live on many plants. Proteins on the surface of the bacteria act as nuclei for ice crystals to form when the temperature drops below freezing.
Frost forming on the bacteria in turn freezes the fluid in the plant, destroying its cells.
Using recombinant DNA techniques, scientists developed a bacterium that did not produce the ice-forming protein. When these altered bacteria are sprayed on a plant, they displace the ice-forming bacteria, and the plant can survive temperatures down to 25 degrees F. for a short time without freezing.