Biotech research plows untrodden frontiers

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

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.

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.

*Altering the genes of mosquitoes to prevent them from carrying diseases such as malaria and even change their diet so they snack on animals rather than people.

The trend with biotech, experts say, is to deliver more products in a smaller space, essentially to make it cheaper in the long run for companies to do business with products that also yield less waste.

That ethos is quite attractive to some environmentalists, but they say troubling questions remain about the wisdom of tinkering with forms of life.

Critics say that by the time a problem is identified it's already too late to ameliorate the damage. Concern over such things as the the pollen dust of Bt corn killing monarch butterflies, which prompted the protests in Minneapolis, is only the tip of the iceberg.

A few months ago, the World Bank commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to examine the risks of genetically modified crops on human health and natural ecosystems.

The conclusion was that transgenic crops represent a rapid acceleration of the hybridization process that has been going on for centuries with everything from orchids to house pets. The report concluded there is, as yet, no compelling evidence to suggest transgenic crops have caused major problems.

"I don't want to criticize the protesters. They are asking the right questions, but maybe some of those questions have already been answered," says David Kaye, spokesman for biomedical research firm Amgen, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Prospecting for enzymes

As scientists try to genetically decode known species and splice together beneficial properties, the real frontier lies in identifying specific enzymes in previously unknown micro-organisms.

That search accounted for $2.5 billion in research and development worldwide in 1999, and genetic scientists believe that enzymes represent potentially $50 billion in untapped revenue.

One of the global leaders in enzyme bio-prospecting is San Diego-based Diversa Corp. Diversa especially is extracted to screening genetic material found in "extremophiles," organisms that live in extreme cold, heat, or darkness.

The company is compiling its own genetic library that tracks properties found along certain genetic sequences.

"The immediate impact of biotechnology companies, like Diversa, is that by transforming old-economy industries ... they can improve people's daily lives," says Hillary Theakston, Diversa's investor relations analyst.

The boom in biotech has given way to a rush of small research companies trying to cash in. Fourteen years ago, when Montana Biotech was founded, there were few firms specializing in genetic engineering.

Now, in the Bozeman area alone, there are dozens of companies united under the umbrella of the Gallatin Valley Technology Alliance, forming partnerships with parties ranging from NASA to multinational companies.

"There's a minority of issues that are stirring up controversy but some of the really exiting things are going unnoticed by the public," Combie says.

As for the demonstrations, Mr. Scott has his own take. "I see the protests as a political-social phenomenon," he says.

"It obviously involves a group of people who feel disenfranchised, not only politically but intellectually. They are against the technological wizards, who in many cases work for corporations and hold the cards and make decisions that affect all of us. The gap has compelled them to hit the streets."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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