NOW that the United States has granted its first patent for a genetically engineered animal, a mouse, the nation should take stock of where this branch of biotechnology could lead. To that end, Congress should enact a temporary moratorium on granting similar patents. This would allow time for a thorough debate over the thorny moral, legal, and economic implications such patents raise. If the past is any guide, once the first patent is granted to a class of biotech products, a torrent of similar patents follows.
Wrestling with these issues will not be easy; although genetic experiments generate strong emotional as well as biological reactions, there are no clear villains.
In the quest to improve human health, researchers have shown that recombinant DNA techniques - gene splicing in popular parlance - can turn animals into living factories to make chemicals for medicine. Scientists also have altered animals to make them more valuable tools for medical research.
In agriculture, scientists see gene splicing leading to poultry and livestock that are more disease-resistant, that can be raised in a wider variety of environments, and that have higher food value, with fewer of the naturally occurring chemicals deemed harmful to human health.
And companies that want to profit from these discoveries are certainly within their rights to try to do so.
Some proponents of animal patents say gene splicing is similar to traditional selective breeding methods. But it differs in two crucial ways. Gene splicing allows the transfer of genetic traits between species - as in the case of the mouse recently patented. And the process is incomparably faster than traditional breeding.
That's why a moratorium is needed. Developments in the field and the effects of the technique occur so quickly that the federal regulatory machinery is left spinning in the dust. It's happened before, with computer software and copyright law, for example. For its part, the US Patent Office is wading through a pile of patent applications using the laws currently available. About 8,000 biotech patents are pending; 21 of them are for genetically engineered animals.
But when it acts on animal patent applications, the Patent Office is in effect making public policy decisions with no public input. In a field with as far-reaching implications as genetic engineering, that should not be allowed to happen. The public, through its elected officials, must decide whether it accepts the moral and ethical statements implied by patenting ever higher forms of ``designer'' animals, whether the projected benefits outweigh the potential risks, and what, if any, limits should be placed on animal patents.
Such decisions, however, must be made by an informed public. Surveys suggest that only a small fraction of the public has the foggiest notion of what genetic engineering involves. Yet such knowledge is essential for participating in a democratic society where science and technology are becoming increasingly intertwined with public policy.
A moratorium would buy the nation time to do its homework and make key decisions.