Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) has taken a hard look at what it calls "the most rapidly progressing areas of human knowledge in the world today" -- the science of genetics and the new technologies to which it is giving rise.
IT sees both large economic promise and awesome social challenge.
On the economic side, the study expects the new biotechnology to cut across the entire spectrum of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. As specially tailored microbes help produce plastics, food products, and drugs, "crude estimates of the expected economic impacts are in the billions of dollars per year for dozens of chemicals within 20 years," it says.
On the other hand, OTA notes: "Continuing advances in science and technology are beginning to provide choices that strain human value systems in areas where previously no choice was posssible. . . . The increasing control over characteristics of organisms and the potential for altering inheritance in a directed fashion raise again questions about the relationship of humans to each other and to other living things. . . ."
Thus, once again, a major authoritative study calls public attention to one of the most profound challenges technologically based modern societies have ever faced. As humans gain the technical ability to manipulate organic life at its basic levels, what safeguards may be needed? What limits, if any, should be set? What subtle new hazards to public health and the environment must be anticipated and averted?
As an adviser to Congress, the OTA doesn't try to resolve such social issues or recommend national policies to deal with them. It confines itself to analyzing the new technology and its effects and to pointing out options for congressional action. Its report -- "Impacts of Applied Genetics: Micro-Organism, Plants, and Animals" -- is not an agenda for action. It is a background document for social and political decisionmaking.
It finds, on the whole, that the early concerns about the possibility of creating dangerous new microbes and losing them inadvertantly were ill-founded. Most biologists involved with socalled genetic engineering have concluded this over the past few years. On the other hand, the OTA says, this doesn't mean that "molecular genetic techniques are totally without risk."
While the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has relaxed its guidelines governing the new genetic research, strict controls are still needed to govern work on pathogenic organisms. Also, the OTA points out, "The NIH Guidelines . . . and existing federal laws appear adequate in most cases to deal with the risks. . . . However, the guidelines are not legally binding on industry, and no single statute or combination with clearly cover all foreseeable commercial applications of genetic engineering."
This is an area where Congress may well want to take legislative action.
Another such area is that of patents. A 5-to-4 US Supreme Court decision, handed down June 16, 1980, settled little when it ruled an organism couldn't be declared nonpatentable just because it was alive. Indeed, as the OTA notes, the court invited Congress to study the whole area of patentability of life forms and set the rules.
This is a subject that will stimulate great controversy. But one concern that has been raised -- that eventually patents would be taken out on humans -- is misplaced, the OTA says. It points out that "the 13th Amendment to the Constitution absolutely prohibits ownership of humans."
Yet, even when public concern for such risks does seems ill-founded, the OTA does not dismiss that concern out of hand. It notes: "Perceptions of the nature , magnitude, and acceptability of the risk differ. In addition, public concern has been expressed about possible long-range impacts of genetic engineering. In this context, the problem facing policymakers is how to address the risk in a way that accomodates the perceptions and values of those who bear it."
It adds: "Although this study was restriced to nonhuman applications, many people assume . . . that what can be done with lower animals can be done with humans and will be. Therefore, some action might be taken [by Congress] to better prepare society for decisions on the application of genetic technologies to humans."
Important as such social considerations are, the bulk of this technological study is concerned with the new biotechnology itself. Its possible benefits are a weighty counterbalance to its social challenges. Besides wide applications in chemical-based industry, the OTA foresees growing uses in agricultural and forestry to improve yields, strengthen crop species, and even develop new types.
However, it warns, "The complexity of plants and animals presents a greater challenge to advances in applied genetics than that posed by mirco-organisms. Nevertheless, the successful genetic manipulation of microbes has encouraged researchers in the agricultural sciences. The new tools will be used to complement, but not replace, the wellestablished practices of plant and animal breeding"
By rewriting the genetic instructions for farm animals, it even seems possible that new breeds not possible in nature might be developed. Again, the OTA takes a cautious view. "In theory, the new technologies will expand the capability of breeders to exchange genetic information by overcoming natural breeding barriers. To date, however, they have not had a widespread impact on the agricultural industry," it says.
There may also be some application in mining and pollution control. Certain bacteria can win metals from poor ores or dilute solutions. Certain microbes may also be useful in converting harmful wastes to more benign forms. Microbes already to this in sewage treatment plants or septic tanks. Now, special life forms may be developed to be more broadly useful.
Indeed, as the OTA admits, biotechnology is so new, its horizons so broad, that it is virtually impossible to foresee its full development. Referring to the federal research money that has supported the underlying genetic science, the report observes: " . . . several decades of support for some of the most esoteric basic research has unexpectedly provided the foundation for a highly usef ul technology."