Watch it with that transgenic microbe, buster

Denise Caruso, author of "Intervention," responds to Salon readers who say the fears of synthetic organisms running amok are exaggerated.

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 29, 2007 9:37PM (EST)

As How the World Works has stepped up its focus on biotechnological issues, an increasing number of readers with strong scientific backgrounds have been contributing pointed critiques in the comments section. An excellent example came in the reaction to last week's "Cautionary Tales of Microbe Evolution," in which a number of correspondents downplayed the danger of synthetic organisms evolving out of human control. A common theme was that the natural world, having evolved over billions of years, is robust enough to resist the depredations of anything humans cook up in a lab.

"Cautionary Tales in Microbe Evolution" was sparked by a specific passage in Denise Caruso's recently published book, "Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet," referring to the vastly faster speed at which microbes evolve than do humans. Today, I was delighted to see that Caruso, a longtime technology reporter in Silicon Valley, had taken the time to respond to some of the critics. Her post adds enough value, I think to get highlighted here, especially since the attention span for letters threads that are older than a couple of days appears to be rather short.

Caruso begins by quoting a passage from one poster:

The same argument can be made for the rest of Venter's plans. Synthetic biology (as currently envisioned) is simply a rearrangement of genes that are already found in bacteria. If there was some way that these parts could be swapped to provide an overwhelming survival advantage, it would have already happened. It hasn't -- or if it has, then life has already adapted to the change.

Then she responds:

Hi; I'm the author of the book that Andrew references in this piece. Thanks to you all for your thoughtful comments. I'm not going to respond to all of them, but I hope I'll be able to get my point across by primarily responding to the statement above.

The fact is that life doesn't always adapt to the changes we inflict upon ecosystems. That is why organisms become extinct. One needs only look at the history of invasive species to see that human intervention into natural systems can have a devastating effect on the environment. One species' overwhelming survival advantage always comes at a cost.

Look, for example, at how the "survival advantage" that bacteria developed via antibiotic resistance -- a situation wholly created by human beings thoughtlessly applying a powerful technology -- has created an extraordinarily dangerous, global health crisis for humans and animals alike.

Also, there is no such thing as a "simple rearrangement of genes." The way that genes are arranged are integral to how organisms function as a whole. Position effects can affect everything from triggering cancer (which we found out in a gene therapy experiment which cured the disease but produced leukemia in the patients) to the production of novel RNAs that can silence other genes.

The concept of synthetic microbes ignores the importance of these subtleties of function, and disregards as well the growing body of knowledge that genes don't work alone, but in networks that we have only barely discovered and do not yet understand at all. This ignorance goes far beyond what we don't know about the genomic behavior of individual organisms to include how genes move between and interact with other species -- which is, in fact, what they will be designed to do.

Also, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet commercialized and released a living engineered microbe. The first attempt to do so was several decades ago, and it was actually the first patented engineered life form -- an oil-eating microbe, designed to convert contaminating oil spills into food for ocean life. It was never brought to market; many years later, the inventor told an interviewer that "the bacteria by itself is nontoxic, but once in the open environment, it can combine with pathogenic elements and show undesirable results." No one could prove its safety and non-toxicity in the open seas.

Many peer reviewed studies have cautioned against the release of any engineered organisms that cannot be contained. I know that lots of genetically engineered proteins have been released into the environment, sometimes to very positive effect -- like enzymes in laundry detergent, and proteins harvested from transgenic bacteria to create pharmaceuticals and the like -- but over the course of 3.5 years researching Intervention, I never saw mention of standalone transgenic microbes being released.

Did I miss something? If so, please post -- I'd like to know.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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