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Biotech research plows untrodden frontiers

From glue to lawns, researchers labor daily in work that rarely sparks protests.

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2000


Far away from the shadow of Dolly the sheep and the roar of protests in cities like Minneapolis and Seattle, biotech researchers like Joan Combie aren't thinking about moral and ethical dilemmas.

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They're working to revolutionize patio and palate - with weed-resistant lawns that need less mowing and ice cream that won't melt as fast in the summer sun. In the process, they're putting environmentalists in something of a quandary.

Many, such as the protesters amassed this week in Philadelphia for the Republican National Convention, point to genetic research as a bad experiment about to go awry.

But experts say bio-engineering could revolutionize consumer waste in ways that recycling cannot. It could also reduce the pressure to clear virgin forests and make food more readily available and inexpensive in poverty-stricken countries.

And then there's Ms. Combie, who is in the middle of a sticky experiment with broad implications.

Combie is developing a new form of industrial-strength glue. Someday, it could provide an environmentally friendly (not to say profitable) alternative to the synthetics used on carpets in office buildings that have been blamed for outbreaks of sickness.

She and her partner, Fred Albert, are among thousands of researchers around the world quietly making daily breakthroughs in work that rarely spurs angry demonstrations or the kind of media hype generated by cloned livestock and ears of corn.

"There's nothing really exciting about glue," Combie confesses with a chuckle. "But cloning a sheep, that's newsworthy. Unfortunately, I think the controversial stuff surrounding bio-engineering takes up more than its share of newspaper space."

Last week, Minneapolis became the latest battleground in the fray over bio-engineering as hundreds of protesters took to the streets in an attempt to disrupt an international scientific conference on biotechnology.

The confrontation there between marchers and police could be repeated this week in Philadelphia, where activists plan to decry transgenic crops that have been banned by the European Union over public health concerns.

Fruit juice, clean clothes

The irony, bioengineering advocates say, is that the protesters in Minneapolis likely went home and enjoyed the benefits of genetic tinkering.

It might have been in something as simple as clean clothes (courtesy of improved detergents) or a glass of fruit juice whose flavor had been enhanced.

"Apart from these common consumer products, I would bet that at some point in time the lives of those protesters have been bettered by biotechnology, certainly in the area of medicines," says Preston Scott, executive director of the World Foundation for Environment and Development in Washington, D.C. "Their increased life expectancy is no accident."

In addition to care-free lawns, researchers believe they are on the cusp of:

*Unleashing a form of ancient, microscopic bacteria to eat toxins at mining sites in cleanups that could save taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

*Extracting the natural agents that enable microbes to endure high doses of ultraviolet rays and transform it into sun cream for beachgoers and possibly an armor that could shield astronauts traveling to other planets.

*Manufacturing "organic" nanochips as small as a speck of dust that can store as much information as millions of personal computers.