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The brave new world of biotechnology and beyond

Genetic engineering and nanotechnologies will not only change our world, but perhaps even bodies

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Almost weekly, it seems, researchers are reporting yet another prototype device of Lilliputian proportions.

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For example, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have devised a simple monorail system using bits of protein that scoot along exquisitely thin Teflon tracks. The idea, notes bioengineer Viola Vogel, who heads the project, is to develop a "molecular shuttle" that can carry material between two points.

Meanwhile, Cornell's Montemagno observes that his motor not only is a tool for studying biomolecular motors, but also represents an "enabling technology" for introducing nanoscale electromechanical systems into living organisms.

As the currents of biotechnology and nanotechnology cross and mingle, the ethical debates that have accompanied issues such as cloning and ownership of living organisms are likely to intensify. "One wonders where all this is leading," acknowledges Smalley. "The road we're passing down could be a road that ends up developing new life forms. Maybe we would be part of those, or maybe we would be bystanders just looking at them. That should get the ethicists amongst us working. It will be possible, it seems almost inevitable, to vastly extend the length of human life. I suspect it will be possible to pretty well eliminate most forms of disease, so the result on global population will be incredible."

Coming to terms with benefits and potential risks of biotechnology and nanotechnology involves balancing market values with other human values, according to Rachelle Hollander, who directs the Societal Dimensions of Engineering, Science, and Technology program at the National Science Foundation. "Ethical debates have not stopped technologies from being developed," she says. "But understanding the potential harm has changed the way they are implemented."

Understanding potential harm

She cites an example four years ago when scientists at Pioneer H-Bred, which supplies seeds to farmers, genetically engineered soybeans to incorporate a gene from Brazil nuts. The idea was to enhance the soybean's protein content. But the company was concerned that people diagnosed with allergies to nuts would use products made from the soybean unaware of the nut protein's presence. Testing showed that the protein Pioneer Hi-Bred introduced could trigger allergic reactions. The company abandoned the program.

Ironically, that example - showing the possibility that genetically modified products might harm unsuspecting consumers - has been cited as one of the key factors fueling resistance to genetically modified foods in a number of countries. Europe has been a hotbed of resistance to genetically modified foods. Japan soon is expected to require the genetically modified foods be labeled.

The impact of this resistance is being felt back at the grain silo. In August, Archer Daniels Midland asked farmers to segregate "non-genetically enhanced" crops from genetically modified crops in response to consumer demand overseas for non-genetically enhanced varieties. "As a key link in the food supply system, we must produce products that our customers will purchase," the statement said.

Last month, the chairman of Cargill Inc., an international agribusiness company based in Minneapolis, announced the company's support for voluntary labeling.

This interplay between science, technology, and the public will increase, says Hollander. Citizen involvement in decisions to implement new technologies is likely to grow. "They will not be resolved by fiat," she says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society