Moments of Shocked Silence About Biotech

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sat Oct 28 10:50:11 PDT 2000

>Date: Fri, 27 Oct 2000 23:49:58 -0700
>From: MichaelP <papadop at> (by way of Connie Fogal <cfogal at>)
>Subject: Moments of Shocked Silence About Biotech
>Donella Meadows' The Global Citizen*, March 16, 2000
>* A bi-weekly column by Donella H. Meadows, director of the
>Sustainability Institute and an adjunct professor of environmental
>studies at Dartmouth College.
>Moments of Shocked Silence About Biotech
>Biotech stocks plummeted this week as President Clinton and British Prime
>Minister Tony Blair requested that companies make their data on the human
>genome public.
>Private firms are racing madly to read and patent the genetic code that
>makes you you and me me. They are trying to beat publicly funded labs,
>which are required as a condition of their grants to publish the gene
>sequences they unravel. One company, Celera Genomics, is funded by drug
>companies with the understanding that the funders will see the code before
>anyone else does.
>If it strikes you as alarming that private investors can patent and keep
>secret and sell something that sits within every cell of your body, you
>ought to pay much closer attention to the new, jaw-dropping biotech
>industry. I have just spent several weeks with my students listening to
>biotech enthusiasts, critics, and a lot of folks in between. There were
>three particular moments I'd like to tell you about, all of them moments
>of stunned silence.
>The first came when we heard from an ecologist who sits on a USDA panel
>that approves the release of genetically engineered crop plants. Of the 71
>applications currently pending, one is for the implantation of the gene by
>which scorpions make their toxin. Splice that gene into a plant, and
>anything that nibbles on a leaf, from woodchucks to bugs, falls down dead.
>Of course people who eat the plant fall down dead too, so there must also
>be a package of genes to turn the scorpion gene on and off. Turn it on in
>the roots and leaves and stems, turn it off in the flower and fruit.
>But what happens to the poison, the students asked, when roots or leaves
>decompose in the soil? What happens if the turn-off gene doesn't work
>infallibly? Would we have to check every fruit or grain for traces of
>scorpion poison?
>Don't know, said the ecologist.
>The second moment came when a geneticist described a new rice with a
>pasted-in gene that allows the plant to make and store beta-carotene, the
>yellow pigment from which our bodies make vitamin A. Thousands of poor
>children in Asia, who eat little but rice, go blind or die for lack of
>vitamin A. The "golden rice" could solve that problem.
>A hand went up, and one of the students asked, "Why not just splice the
>beta-carotene gene into the child?"
>Silence. Finally another visiting expert said, "Within five years that
>could be possible. Fasten your seat belts."
>More silence. I guess everyone's mind was racing as mine was. I was
>picturing golden children. Then I thought, why not splice in the gene for
>chlorophyll while we're at it, and just send the kids out in the sun to
>photosynthesize their lunch? Gold-green children.
>Moment number three came when I showed the students a documentary called
>"The Day After Trinity." It's the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the
>developer of the atomic bomb, told through interviews with some of the
>great physicists who worked with him at Los Alamos during the Second World
>The cause was compelling: to stop Hitler. The science was thrilling. The
>effort was tremendous. The bomb was nearing completion when Hitler
>surrendered in May, 1945.
>That surrender did not cause any slowdown in the work at Los Alamos. There
>was too much excitement. It was nearly time for the first test, called
>Trinity, which took place at Alamagordo, New Mexico, on July 16. The
>scientists said that on that day, as they watched the first atom bomb
>explosion in history, their reaction was joyous. "It worked!"
>Less than a month later, when a similar bomb incinerated 100,000 people at
>Hiroshima, one scientist said his first thought was, "Thank goodness it
>wasn't a dud." His second thought was, "Oh my God, what have we done?"
>The film ends with Oppenheimer testifying in Washington two decades later.
>When asked by a senator how to contain the nuclear arms race, Oppenheimer
>answered, "It's 20 years too late. We should have done it the day after
>I turned on the lights. The students just sat there. Didn't move. Didn't
>say a word. I couldn't either.
>Geneticists are already cloning sheep and cows and mice and pigs. They can
>pick out a trait from almost any creature and paste it into any other, and
>they are on the verge of being able to turn a gene on or off at will. We
>already plant gene-spliced crops on tens of millions of acres. We can
>order genes from catalogs. Within a few years we will be able to read the
>code for our very selves and reach in and tinker with it. It is only a
>matter of time before hackers appear who think it might be fun, as
>computer hackers do, to create and release their own viruses.
>The stock market is speculating on this stuff. National leaders ask
>companies, politely, to make their knowledge available to all. We need to
>do much more that, more than just fasten our seatbelts and go along for
>the ride. We need to slow down and think together about where this
>technology is going and who should own it and who should decide.
>For genomics it is still the day after Trinity. We don't want or need to
>have to ask, helplessly, "Oh my God, what have we done?"

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