PARIS—Europeans this summer have gained intimate experience in an exercise they had viewed in the past as a strictly American sport: genetic engineers versus ecologists. The contest arose after a spate of reports revealed that field tests of modified bacteria and plants were under way in France, West Germany, Belgium and Britain. Ecologists quickly denounced the “arrogance” of the European Economic Community, which financed some of the experiments.
Of particular concern is the testing by France’s National Institute of Agronomical Research (INRA) of genetically altered bacteria in an open field in the heart of Burgundy, near Dijon. Benedikt Hoerlin, German representative at the EEC and spokesman for the Rainbow group, said the tests set a “grave precedent” and warned that they could lead to a "terrifying catastrophe.” Hoerlin also excoriated INRA for bypassing regulations concerning such experiments.
TheDijon experiment was begun quietly in March when INRA’s laboratory of soil microbiology released into a field planted with alfalfa and wheat a strain of the Rhizobia bacterium that has been altered to increase resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin. The purpose of the experiment is to determine whether the modified bacteria can find their way into the root nodules of alfalfa, a legume, and pass on resistant genes to the naturally occurring Rhizobia in the nodules.
Alain Deshayes, secretary general of an INRA commission set up to evaluate the risks of such trials, maintains that the Dijon experiment presents no danger. He admitted, however, that it is not known whether gene transfers can take place among bacteria in field conditions and that there is little data on bacterial population dynamics in the soil. As an added precaution, workers sterilized the land surrounding the experimental field.
Another experiment is currently under way near Versailles, where INRA researchers, in collaboration with scientists of Plant Genetic Systems in Ghent, Belgium, are growing tobacco plants that have been modified by the transfer of a gene coding for an active toxin of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis
Such toxim are considered as attractive biocontrol agents as they have no known effects on non-target organisms and have been used as biological insecticides for more than 20 years. Mark Vaeck and others from Plant Genetic Systems, a private company, have cloned the toxin gene and inserted it into tobacco plants, which now synthesize insecticidal proteins that protect leaves from damage by larvae of the tobacco hornworm.
The trials are expected to demonstrate whether the grafted gene can be transmitted by pollen after the tobacco flowers. Similar tests are under way near Ghent, and others are carried out in North Carolina on varieties of commerical tobacco plants transformed by the technique developed by the Belgian scientists. Yet another series of trials, in France and Belgium involve tomato plants rendered resistant to a herbicide, phosphinothricin (PPT), widely marketed by the German company Hoeschst under the trade name "Basta"
No Clear-Cut Rules
Other agricultural research is being carried out by Germany’s Max Planck Institute in Cologne and Britain’s Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. These efforts are encouraged by an EEC biology program awarding research contracts and encouraging inter-European collaboration.
Even if such experiments represent no danger, they do raise the question of control. In the United States, the University of California at Berkeley and Advanced Genetic Sciences of Oakland, Calif., went through years of legal battles before field-testing genetically altered “ice-minus” bacteria designed to protect potato and strawberry plants from frost (THE SCIENTIST, May 18, p. 4; June 15, p. 2). In contrast, European trials are not subjected to clear-cut regulations.
French scientists, for example, do not need prior approval for experiments, although the Bio-Molecular Engineering. Commission, set up in February by the Ministry of Agriculture, examines projects submitted to it on a voluntary basis. The INRA operates a genetic engineering and environment commission to evaluate its own trials.
Green Party representatives to the European parliament last month failed to force debate on an “emergency declaration” demanding that all tests be stopped immediately and the sites decontaminated. But they are expected to continue to push for a halt in field trials at least until precise regulations are established—and enforced—for all member countries.
Dorozynski is a science writer and editor in Paris.