Release Also Frees Scientist

BERKELEY, CALIF.—On April 29 Steven E. Lindow drove seven hours to the remote Tulelake area of northern California to begin open-air tests of bacteria genetically altered to combat frost formation on potato plants. For the University of California at Berkeley plant pathologist, however, the trip marked the end of a five-year journey. In 1982 Lindow discovered that the removal of a specific gene from the ubiquitous bacterium Pseudomonas syringae could shut down production of a chemical res

By | May 18, 1987

BERKELEY, CALIF.—On April 29 Steven E. Lindow drove seven hours to the remote Tulelake area of northern California to begin open-air tests of bacteria genetically altered to combat frost formation on potato plants. For the University of California at Berkeley plant pathologist, however, the trip marked the end of a five-year journey.

In 1982 Lindow discovered that the removal of a specific gene from the ubiquitous bacterium Pseudomonas syringae could shut down production of a chemical responsible for the early formation of ice crystals on plants. He suggested that plants colonized primarily by the altered bacteria instead of the wild type could be protected from frost damage even when the temperature was well below freezing.

His proposal to test the idea triggered a storm of controversy and legal battles that are still raging. Although there were no demonstrators at Tulelake, five days earlier there were hundreds of reporters and protesters on hand for the spraying of similarly altered bacteria, with the trade name Frostban, on a strawberry plot east of here. Lindow's lab had supplied material to Advanced Genetic Sciences, the Oakland company that conducted that test.

"This whole area of the competitive exclusion of organisms that might be considered deleterious to plants is an attractive one which many people are interested in," Lindow said in a telephone interview shortly after returning from Tulelake. "Unfortunately, we haven't been able to make much progress in terms of either the theory or practice of the ideas. Because of all the legal wrangling we've lost five years of experience, five years of scientific progress.

Lindow said he never imagined, at the outset, that his work would be surrounded by such controversy.

"I may have been naive, but that's the way I first approached it," he explained. "In retrospect, I guess it wasn't too surprising, there will always be some people opposed to what you are doing. But the fact that they've been so persistent and so irrational in their arguments is a bit perplexing.

"It can be very frustrating having to listen to the ravings of these groups," Lindow continued. "They've been telling stories all along of the horrible consequences of this kind of work, stories which were just not supported by the facts. I find that deceptive and unreasonable."

Making a Point

Among those who challenged Lindow's test proposal was Jeremy Rifkin, an outspoken critic of the regulations governing the biotechnology field whose Foundation for Economic Trends has fought the tests in the courts and the federal regulatory process.

Asked why there were no protests this time at Tulelake, Rificin said "It's been a four-year battle to get some recognition of the problems this type of work presents us with, and I think we have made the point. Scientists have to realize that, if their work impacts society, then they have to be responsible."

Rifkin says his group hopes to block an upcoming test in Wisconsin, by Biotechnica of Cambridge, Mass., of genetically altered Rhizobium on alfalfa. But Lindow hopes his experiment will pave the way for others.

"The dangers of this kind of work are greatly exaggerated," said Lindow. "We hope our demonstrating now that these things are safe and useful will make it somewhat easier in the future. It will show that there's a purpose for all this effort; it's not just misguided scientists running around trying to destroy everything."

Webster is a freelance writer in Menlo Park, Calif.

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