What if a peanut gene is moved into lettuce? Is that a problem? It sounds straightforward enough, but what if someone is allergic to peanuts? Lettuce doesn't come with a list of ingredients, so how would anyone know?
Peter Dunn, professor of entomology and director of the Purdue University Biotechnology Institute, says scientists nowadays can't be content just to do the science. "Did the experiment work?" is only the first question they ask.
Scientists at Purdue are sensitive to the seemingly endless questions raised by biotechnology and are taking steps to ensure that those questions are both raised and answered, he says.
Bernie Tao, associate professor of bioprocess engineering, says, "Engineers perceive their products as being controllable. But we don't always have complete control in biologically engineered living systems. These products can be somewhat autonomous."
Today's scientists, he says, "must take authorship and responsibility for the things they engineer."
Tao is so concerned about researchers' responsibility to deal with the ethical questions of biotechnology that he has helped develop a course for undergraduate and graduate students, Applied Ethics, which was offered for the first time in the 1994 spring semester.
"We must develop empathy and understanding of how people think," Tao says. "We have been trained as problem solvers. The only route through this is education, because there's no way we're going to shove this science genie back in the bottle."
Biotechnology is a set of tools for speeding up the process of breeding improved plants and animals. One of the best-known tools of biotechnology is genetic engineering, a method of transferring genes from one living system to another.
To scientists, the benefits of biotechnology such as genetic engineering are obvious. At Purdue, scientists have moved disease-resistance genes into crop plants, reducing the need for pesticides. Other researchers are working to make a variety of rice that provides complete protein, potentially life-saving research for some people in developing countries.
Suzanne Nielsen, professor of food science, is using biotechnology to make dry beans resistant to insects. Tao plans to use biotechnology to make a type of molecule that can be used to package pesticides or drugs.
In all, 150 Purdue researchers in six schools are working with 250 projects using biotechnology. And, Dunn says, they all are conscious of the potential risks.
The balance of risks and benefits is central to the application of biotechnology, Nielsen notes. "Should the technology go forward, even though there is a risk of unanticipated side effects such as food allergies?" she asks. "Can the technology be ignored when it has the potential of feeding starving humans in developing countries? Are there different standards for developing countries than for the United States?
"The answer to the last question is most likely 'No.' Many countries are looking to the United States to set the standards."
Although labeling of the foods and other products of biotechnology might seem to be the answer for many of the problems, it's often too simple a solution. For example, how does one know what type of tomato is on a salad bar? What if the label lists all the of proteins in the food for people who are allergic to specific proteins in certain foods --would anyone other than a biochemist be able to make sense of it?
Gene transfers into food also may raise questions that are literally Talmudic. "If you put a gene from a pig in corn, does that make the corn pork?" Dunn asks. "Questions such as these are for the religious community to answer." Religions with dietary guidelines, such as Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, could face such questions.
The Jewish community already has answered one question raised by biotechnology. In 1990 the FDA approved the use of an enzyme produced by biotechnology for cheese production. Historically, the enzyme has been isolated from calves' stomachs. Jewish dietary laws prohibit combining meat and milk products -- even preparing the two products with the same utensils -- but Jewish leaders have approved cheese containing the enzyme, which is produced from a genetically altered organism, as kosher. (It is not, however, approved for use during Passover.)
Like the others, Tao is quick to observe the benefits of genetic engineering, and just as quick to recognize the ethical questions posed by biotechnology. Tao researches a modified starch called "cyclodextrin," which is made up of long chains of the sugar glucose. Water-soluble cyclodextrin molecules can be used as "molecular doughnuts" to encircle and package drugs, pesticides or certain foods, such as garlic.
Tao hopes to produce cyclodextrin in genetically altered potatoes. Because the cyclodextrin is water-soluble and potato starches aren't, cyclodextrin could be washed out of the potatoes and then recrystallized in a purified form.
Before using potatoes to produce cyclodextrin, however, Tao has examined the issues of food safety and byproduct disposal. The genetically altered potatoes are not intended for consumption but they should be safe if accidentally eaten, he says. The byproducts are biodegradable and could be used to make products such as ethanol.
It's only recently that new scientific developments have been subjected to such scrutiny.
Dunn says that if certain issues at the turn of the century had been questioned as much as biotechnology is today, it's possible that the internal combustion engine may never have been introduced. It's unlikely that a new technology that would pollute our air, kill thousands of people annually in accidents and put an entire industry (the horse and buggy) out of business would be introduced to the public -- at least not until the potential effects had been identified and the risks and benefits evaluated.
The biotechnology scenario is different. As with all new foods and drugs, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring that products created with the tools of biotechnology are safe for consumers and the environment. Groups of scientists meet to consider the social and economic impacts of the new products, as well as the safety issues. And researchers work to communicate with consumers so they, too, will understand genetically engineered products and their likely impact.
"As consumers we will gain experience with these products," Dunn says. "A similar debate occurred over artificial sweeteners, something that is today part of everyday life."
These days, it's not enough for researchers to "do the science." They must address the social concerns surrounding the science as well. When it comes to the relatively new addition to the research toolbox called biotechnology, Purdue researchers are doing both.
Sources: Bernie Tao, (765) 494-1183; Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org
Suzanne Nielsen, (765) 494-8328; Internet, email@example.com
Peter Dunn, (765) 494-4596; Internet, Pete_Dunn@mailhost.entm.purdue.edu
Writer: Tracy S. Petersen, (765) 494-8084; Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, email@example.com
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