Experimenting With Life

I am a geneticist by training. At one time, I had one of the largest research grants and genetics labs in Canada. The time I spent in this lab was one of the happiest periods of my life and I am proud of the contribution we made to science. My introductory book is still the most widely used genetics text in the world.

When I graduated as a geneticist in 1961, I was full of enthusiasm and determined to make a mark. Back then we knew about DNA, genes, chromosomes, and genetic regulation. But today when I tell students what our hot ideas were in '61, they choke with laughter. Viewed in 2000, ideas from 1961 seem hilarious. But when those students become professors years from now and tell their students what was hot in 2000, their students will be just as amused.

At the cutting edge of scientific research, most of our ideas are far from the mark - wrong, in need of revision, or irrelevant. That's not a derogation of science; it's the way science advances. We take a set of observations or data, set up a hypothesis that makes sense of them, and then we test the hypothesis. The new insights and techniques we gain from this process are interpreted tentatively and liable to change, so any rush to apply them strikes me as downright dangerous.

No group of experts should be more aware of the hazards of unwarranted claims than geneticists. After all, it was the exuberance of geneticists early in this century that led to the creation of a discipline called eugenics, which aimed to improve the quality of human genes. These scientists were every bit as clever, competent, and well-meaning as today's genetic engineers; they just got carried away with their discoveries. Outlandish claims were made by eminent geneticists about the hereditary nature of traits such as drunkenness, nomadism, and criminality, as well as those judged "inferior" or "superior." Those claims provided scientific respectability to legislation in the US prohibiting interracial marriage and immigration from countries judged inferior, and allowed sterilization of inmates of mental institutions on genetic grounds. In Nazi Germany, geneticist Josef Mengele held peer-reviewed research grants for his work at Auschwitz. The grand claims of geneticists led to "race purification" laws and the Holocaust.

Today, the leading-edge of genetics is in the field of biotechnology. The basis of this new area is the ability to take DNA (genetic material) from one organism and insert it into a different species. This is truly revolutionary. Human beings can't normally exchange genes with a carrot or a mouse, but with DNA technology it can happen.

However, history informs us that though we love technology, there are always costs, and since our knowledge of how nature works is so limited, we can't anticipate how those costs will manifest. We only have to reflect on DDT, nuclear power, and CFCs, which were hailed as wonderful creations but whose long-term detrimental effects were only found decades after their widespread use.

Now, with a more wise and balanced perspective, we are cutting back on the use of these technologies. But with genetically modified (GM) foods, this option may not be available. The difference with GM food is that once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be difficult or impossible to stuff it back. If we stop using DDT and CFCs, nature may be able to undo most of the damage - even nuclear waste decays over time. But GM plants are living organisms. Once these new life forms have become established in our surroundings, they can replicate, change, and spread; there may be no turning back. Many ecologists are concerned about what this means to the balance of life on Earth that has evolved over millions of years through the natural reproduction of species.

Genomes are selected in the entirety of their expression. In ways we barely comprehend, the genes within a species are interconnected and interact as an integrated whole. When a gene from an unrelated species is introduced, the context within which it finds itself is completely changed. If a taiko drum is plunked in the middle of a symphony orchestra and plays along, it is highly probable the resultant music will be pretty discordant. Yet based on studies of gene behavior derived from studies within a species, biotechnologists assume that those rules will also apply to genes transferred between species. This is totally unwarranted.

As we learned from experience with DDT, nuclear power and CFCs, we only discover the costs of new technologies after they are extensively used. We should apply the Precautionary Principle with any new technology, asking whether it is needed and then demanding proof that it is not harmful. Nowhere is this more important than in biotechnology because it enables us to tamper with the very blueprint of life.

Since GM foods are now in our diet, we have become experimental subjects without any choice. (Europeans say if they want to know whether GMOs are hazardous, they should just study North Americans.) I would have preferred far more experimentation with GMOs under controlled lab conditions before their release into the open, but it's too late.

We have learned from painful experience that anyone entering an experiment should give informed consent. That means at the very least food should be labeled if it contains GMOs so we each can make that choice.

David T Suzuki PhD is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. Web: www.davidsuzuki.org
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