Scientists aim to make a better breakfast through genetic research

For genetic engineer James R. Wild, breakfast represents a new agricultural frontier. The Texas A&M University biologist notes that something like seven or eight different plants and animals - each produced by a complex agricultural system - contribute to a typical morning meal. This is where he sees the basic challenge of the forthcoming genetic revolution in agriculture.

''If we (genetic engineers) are going to improve the characteristics of your breakfast, we have to figure out how to improve the characteristics that are important to each one of those seven or eight agricultural systems,'' he says.

Doing that is a major leap beyond the genetic explorations at the level of single plant or animal cells now going on in the laboratory. Yet Dr. Wild says he believes tomorrow's genetically tailored farming will be upon us sooner than may be realized. That is why he came to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to discuss its implications with experts from other fields.

He explains that he has two basic points he wants to convey. First, he says, ''Genetic systems are incredibly fluid and changeable. . . . And therefore, as we go down the line, there's not going to be any restraint by the genetic structure of (plant or animal) systems on our ability to intervene. . . .''

Second, he outlines how great the changes might be. ''Will we be able to create these superplants or a new type of creature that would be able to take advantage of mobility and photosynthesis?'' he asks rhetorically. In answer, he says he has ''come to the point of believing that any scenario you want to try to adopt would be a scenario that could be obtainable. . . .''

In other words, he considers it realistic to anticipate such breakthroughs as cereal crop plants that can extract their own nitrogen fertilizer from the air as legumes now do or crops with genes inserted to give resistance to specific pests. It is realistic to expect desirable qualities found in animals to be given to plants and vice versa.

However, with such awesome ability about to be given to agriculturalists, Wild agreed with Jean Lipman-Blumen of LBS International that it is time to try to anticipate any possible bad effects that might arise.

She asked, for example, if the genetic tinkerers were consulting with nutrition experts to ensure that the foods derived from the new superplants and animals will provide adequate nourishment. Robert Rucker of the University of California at Davis explained that just because a food has a specified balance of such factors as vitamins, minerals, or proteins doesn't mean it offers good food value. Nutrients have to be in a form that is readily digested, and this quality varies widely among food products, he said.

Wild replied that consultation is not going on to the extent it should. He called such compartmentalization a serious weakness of the advance toward the new agriculture. He explained that traditional agricultural research workers and those who are new to the field, such as molecular biologists, eye each other with suspicion.

The field has become polarized into opposing camps, a situation that impedes discussion of its larger implications, Wild said. He added that overcoming this isolationism may be as big a challenge to improving agriculture through genetic engineering as is the basic biology involved.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.