It’s not easy, at first sight, to discern signs of ideological harmony between biologists who are working toward the environmental dissemination of genetically altered organisms and “activists” who are deeply apprehensive about the idea. Look more closely, however, and one argument appears as a possible basis for unity: the need for far greater investment in the ecological research necessary for prudent development of this novel range of technologies.

As reflected in the agenda for the First International Conference on the Release of Genetically Engineered Microorganisms (REGEM 1), which opens April 5 in Cardiff, Wales, the potential applications of organisms carrying recombinant DNA in agriculture, medicine and other domains are extremely impressive in their range and promise. Yet at least some of those rewards may be slow to accrue unless much greater effort is put into fundamental environmental studies that will provide guidance for both scientists and regulatory authorities.

“It is...

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