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Genentic Engineering. Scientists are growing more adept at shifting genes from one plant or animal to another. As their skill sharpens, so will its effect on people's lives -- from having children to getting a job. This is raising some basic ethical, religious, and legal questions.

By Curtis J. SitomerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 1986


`THE residents of this community feel that they are being used as guinea pigs for the rest of the world,'' said Glenn Church of the Action League for Ecologically Responsible Technology. Mr. Church, of Tulelake, Calif., was among local citizens this summer who opposed a University of California-sponsored genetic experiment in a potato field about four miles south of the Oregon border.

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Developed by scientists Steven Ludlow and Nickolas Panopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley, the test called for spraying a small outdoor patch of potato plants with a strain of bacteria to see whether it would inhibit frost formation, as hoped.

The test was not made. It may never be. Under pressure and threat of lawsuits from local environmentalists, state consumer groups, and a national anti-genetic engineering lobby, the Foundation on Economic Trends, the university backed off in late August.

University spokesman Ron Kolb said the experimenters will consider further studies on the potential environmental impact and other possible dangers posed by the bacteria and more thoroughly discuss the ramifications for the town of Tulelake and surrounding communities.

Did this genetic experiment pose any real dangers to this small California community?

Perhaps not. When it first granted a permit to proceed last spring, the United States Environmental Protection Agency said the test would ``pose minimal risk to public health or environment.'' But the locals were extremely skeptical.

Given the some of the history of genetics-related experiments, these qualms are understandable.

Take the case of the gypsy moth. Some of its eggs were brought to the United States by French entomologist Leopold Trouvelot. His long-range goal seemed worthy -- to crossbreed the insects with silkworm moths to produce a disease-resistant silkworm for his native France.

Unfortunately, several of the caterpillars escaped from his home in Medford, Mass. They reproduced in the wild, and their voracious descendants have now spread through New England and as far south as Virginia. Since its release in 1869, this pest has stripped the leaves off more than 5 million acres of trees. Public concern about mishaps

The gypsy-moth mishap didn't involve a genetically engineered organism. But it illustrates a major question that people are asking scientists who are tinkering with the fundamental building blocks of organic life: How do you know that a genetically altered organism you deem potentially beneficial to mankind won't have some unforeseen and disastrous consequence if let loose in the environment?

In Tulelake, Mr. Church had asked why, in the absence of more conclusive data, he and his fellow residents should take for someone else's benefit whatever risks might be involved in the Berkeley scientists' test.

``Many want to know who will be liable for [what] and how much if something goes wrong,'' he said. ``And who will guarantee the farmers [of the area] that the healthful image of their potatoes and other crops will not be tainted by the Ludlow experiment in the eyes of the consumer?''

This question is but one example of a growing list of ethical, moral, and religious issues swirling around the science of gene splicing.

Among them: What are the tradeoffs between ensuring public safety and assuring scientific progress? Should genetic-engineering development proceed at the risk of invading personal privacy and perhaps promoting social discrimination? How can individual or groups contribute meaningfully to a discussion on a subject they know little about and one that is perhaps too sophisticated for general understanding? What religious values are touched by gene-splicing techniques? Industry backs some regulations

Groups such as the Industrial Biotechnology Association and the Association of Biotechnology Companies -- which advocate full throttle for genetic experimentation -- support some restrictions on development to bolster public safety.