THE SUPREME COURT agreed last week to decide whether you can patent a new life form created by man in a laboratory. It goes under the name of genetic engineering. One of the cases has to do with a scientist at General Electric who made a bacterium in the lab and called it Pseudomonas. The bacterium is capable of eating oil spills by breaking down the molecular structure of petroleum as it floats on the ocean.
I am not concerned whether you can patent Pseudomonas or not. What worries me is that the bacterium exists at all.
As with so many things scientists come up with, it sounds great in a test tube. Everyone hates oil spills, and if you can have hungry organisms feasting on the stuff it solves that problem.
But what happens after the bacterium eats up all the oil that is spilled? In a few days the Pseudomonas will start getting hungry again and going after oil that is being drilled up from the ocean floor. It will start chomping away at any fuel it can get its teeth in, and it's not inconceivable that as billions of them work their way through an oil field there will be nothing left to pump up but salt water.
Chomp, chomp, chomp -- and there go all the reserves in the North Sea. Chomp, chomp, chomp -- and it's goodbye to the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Chomp, chomp, chomp -- and you can kiss the petroleum off the coast of California goodbye.
The Pseudomonas can't tell the difference bewteen oil spilled from a tanker and oil on the ocean floor. All it knows is that if it wants to survive, it has to eat. And one lousy tanker spill will not feed a family of bacteria very long.
If this isn't enough to make you nervous, what happens when the bacteria start clinging to the shoes of someone working on an oil rig? There is a big turnover in men who work on ocean-going rigs. After a while they long to drill on land. Suppose the rigger moves to Texas and wears the same shoes in the Panhandle. The bacteria will immediately start going down the well and chomp, chomp, chomp -- it's arrivederci to Texas oil.
I know that someone will argue that the Pseudomonas won't eat oil unless it's mixed with salt water. But bacteria are very adaptable organisms; and if they can't swill their petroleum with salt water they'll take it straight.
Once the Pseudomonas gets into our domestic oil it's a short step for it to the refinery and then into your home heating tank. Chomp, chomp, chomp -- and half the oil that cost you 90 cents a gallon will be digested by bacteria before it gets to your furnace.
I may be unfair to the Pseudomonas, or the man who created it. For all I know the bacterium may get its fill of oil spills and then die. But genetic engineering is a dangerous game, and when you start creating bacteria in a test tube you have no idea what they're going to feast on.
Today it may just chomp on tar balls off Cape Cod, but tomorrow it might decide that sweet oil tasted better. When it does it's shalom to Saudi Arabia.