Genetic Engineering Raises Concerns

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

GLEN DALE WOODALL served five years in a West Virginia prison for two rapes he did not commit. Last year he won release and a million-dollar settlement after sophisticated DNA tests proved he could not have been involved.

Mr. Woodall's case is a dramatic example of how modern science is making use of DNA - deoxyribonucleic acid - which makes up chromosomes, the complete genetic blueprint found in every cell of living beings.

But scientists want to do more than merely look at chromosomes. They want to improve them. Cross-breeding is the century-old technique for this, but that's like buying a grocery cart full of items when you only need a couple. So biologists are finding ways to identify individual genetic information and insert it into a cell, where it begins to function as if there originally.

Recommended: What do you know about GMOs? Take the GMO quiz

The technique of recombinant DNA engineering has even caused the barriers between dissimilar species to be broken down. Scores of companies are field-testing biotech products with novel genetic combinations: cantaloupe and yellow squash containing bacteria and virus genes, corn with firefly genes, and rice with pea genes.

Some people worry that such tampering could have unpredictable detriments. For instance, if genetically engineered traits such as herbicide resistance find their way into weeds, the altered life forms could disrupt natural ecosystems.

MORE than 3,000 food-industry professionals have joined the Pure Food Campaign, an international boycott of genetically altered food products. One company joining the boycott is Sun Harvest Farms, a small grocery chain in central and south Texas.

Sun Harvest noted that the United States Food and Drug Administration will allow such foods to be marketed this year, but does not require them to be labeled or pretested for safety.

Regardless of these concerns, bioengineered products "are going to be part of our everyday food," predicts plant physiologist Ron Newton at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas.

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