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Opening Pandora's Box: The Risks of Releasing Genetically Engineered Organisms by Paul Hatchwell

The rapidly developing technology of genetic engineering will have wide-ranging and highly significant ramifications for human society and the natural world. The commercial production and release of new forms of organisms will soon be commonplace, yet there has been little open discussion on how this technology will be controlled or on the possible consequences of releases into the natural world. The methods of assessing the effects of releases or of monitoring them once they have been released are crude. Harmful effects to ecosystems will only be accurately assessed after the organisms have been released.

Biotechnology can be defined as: "The utilization of a biological process, be it microbial, plant or animal cells, or their constituents to provide goods and services".1 Fermentation, selective plant breeding, and the domestication of animals have developed over millennia, and have provided the basis for our civilization. Genetic engineering, however, involves fundamental changes in the DNA sequence of living cells by entirely artificial means, via in vitro fusion of cells or components of cells: such organisms are termed 'recombinant', and are 'transgenic' where separate natural species have been crossed. The probability of such events occurring in the normal course of evolution is extremely low, since natural mutation rates are insufficient, and since behavioural, physical, or geographical barriers normally preclude natural transgenic crosses. Genetic engineering will artificially change the course and speed of evolution, to an extent previously unimaginable.

In the United States, the issues raised by the advent of biotechnology, and especially of genetic manipulation, are wide-ranging and increasingly controversial,2 in the UK, the debate has only just begun. Crucial decisions that will eventually affect all of us are already being taken. Currently, no comprehensive statistics on either the number or type of releases to date are readily available from regulatory agencies at the UK or European Community level, let alone at the global level. To date, seven releases have occurred in the UK, in some cases involving multiple releases. In France, the number may already exceed 20.

The Economic Impact of Biotechnology During the next few decades, biotechnology and genetic engineering are likely to become increasingly prominent in economic terms, particularly to the European, US, and Japanese economies, gradually replacing the present fossil-fuel, and inorganic mineral-based industrial structures. In several European economies, biotechnology already accounted for 20-25 per cent of Paul Hatchwell has recently completed a M.Sc. at the Environmental Resources Unit, University ofSalford. In addition to genetic engineering research, he has been researching the environmental impact of the Electricity Supply Industry in England & Wales.

the Gross Domestic Product as early as 1978;^ by 1984, investment in genetic engineering had already exceeded $2.5 billion,4 whilst the worldwide figure (for all biotechnologies) could reach $27-64 billion by the end of the century,5 if some of the more bullish 'guesstimates' are to be believed. In the medium term, the economic effect will be similar to the boom in micro-electronics, but the long-term effects on society and economy will be immeasurably greater.

The fullest adoption of genetic engineering would involve fundamental changes in the way we think about our place in the natural order. Ultimately, say the technocrats, we could even be deciding upon a natural order, and engineering nature according to our priorities (or whims) at the time. Under such circumstances the question could become not so much where humanity belongs in nature, but rather whether nature has any place at all in a largely artificial world. The consequences of such an arrogant attitude to biological conservation would be disastrous, both for biological conservation and to ourselves.

Microbe Releases Undoubtedly, there are benefits to be had from engineered microbes capable, for example, of removing heavy metals from polluted waters cheaply and efficiently. But, although the release of microbes capable of metabolizing oil6 and concentrating heavy metals from low-grade ores is imminent, no serious effort has been made to understand the potential ecological hazards involved. The possibility of uncontrolled0 pollution of watercourses, by ore deposits of microbially enhanced grade over much wider areas than intended, cannot be lightly dismissed.

The risk of such organisms spreading out of control has been characterized as one of low probability, but with a large potential for damage. The probability of survival is clearly increased with frequent releases of such organisms en masse. The use of genetically engineered micro-organisms (GEMS), in place of agro-chemicals, is one such area of possible risk.

A US firm has recently released a genetically engineered version of the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae, which in nature facilitates the formation of frost, and hence causes damage to

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The Ecologist, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1989