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March 30, 2000


Risks of Lateral Gene Transfer


- http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Date: Mon, 27 Mar 2000 09:08:41 -0700
From: Greg Phillips
Subject: Re: Risks of Lateral Gene Transfer

Dear Colleagues,

In response to Andrew Apel's comments, I am motivated to offer
the following personal comments. I have found these types of
arguments to be generally well received in my genetics,
biotechnology, and ethics lectures, except there are always a few
anti-technologists (any kind of technology) for whom no argument
seems to make sense.

Yes, indeed, there is a risk of lateral gene transfer across species.
This is a universal risk of biology. Nature has given us a number of
natural "genetic engineers." Retroviruses as a group (including
HIV) are natural genetic engineers, placing copies of their genetic
information into their hosts, including humans, in some but not all
cases causing terrible diseases. Several organisms that cause
plant diseases, such as Agrobacterium species, also are natural
genetic engineers, making copies of a select portion of their
genetic information and directing their integration into host plant
chromosomes. Every biology class is full of examples of "genetic
engineering" occurring in nature, and having occurred for eons, from
bacterial transformation (where bacteria pick up pieces of DNA
from their environment!!), to conjugation, to transduction (from
viruses to other host organisms, again), etc. Lateral gene transfer
across species, or in other words "genetic engineering," is,
apparently, an essential feature of biology! All of the "genetic
engineering" we scientists conduct in the lab are based on those
natural examples from original biology. All of the technologies
called "biotechnology" have their origin in nature (restriction
enzymes are an excellent example of a natural technology now
utilized in the lab). We scientists are not "playing God," we are
merely trying to understand and to utilize the nature of biology
which God has provided us. When it comes down to it, isn't that
the definition of technology: The discovery of natural principles and
their utilization to the perceived benefit of humankind.

So, yes, biology (whether intervened by scientists or left to its own
natural devices) provides risks of lateral gene transfer across
species. Do you therefore wish to ban all products of nature
because of the inherent risks of biology? That would certainly be a
self-defeating position to take.

Laboratory produced products operate on the same natural
principles as nature itself, and the risks are inherently equivalent.
The level of safety testing currently conducted by the industry is
designed to eliminate any additional risks possibly introduced by
scientists/engineers before such products leave the laboratory
containment facilities, and once passing these tests, the products
reaching the marketplace have the same inherent risks as other
products of nature -- no more and no less.

Greg Phillips, Ph.D.
Professor of Agronomy & Horticulture
New Mexico State University
Editor-in-Chief, In Vitro Cellular and Developmental Biology - Plant

From: Andrew Apel

> So before anyone starts urging scientists to be vocal, they better first
> decide on how scientists are going to answer: "Don't you admit that it
> is possible that these resistance genes could somehow by some mechanism
> be passed on to the bacterium which causes bubonic plague?"