As breakfast fare goes, the newspaper article was more effective than a cup of coffee: "The Department of Agriculture's research center in Beltsville is carrying out experiments to produce super sheep and pigs -- perhaps twice as large as current livestock -- by injecting them with a growth-hormone gene from humans." Already, the researchers noted, a giant strain of mice has been created by injecting them with human genes, so it is only a matter of time before giant livestock will be produced.
Even if the reasons offered are completely meritorious, such as in this case the advancement of knowledge or increasing the human food supply, the matter of crossing genes from one species to another raises rather large and troubling questions. The longterm implications of such research have not come close to being discussed by an informed public, anymore than the longterm implications of developing the A-bomb were discussed.
The Manhattan Project, for obvious security reasons, was conducted in utmost secrecy. It also was conducted with a certain amount of dismaying ignorance about the effect of radiation that persisted into the '60s, when thousands of military and civilian personnel were exposed during above-ground bomb testing in the Nevada desert. They are still paying the price: Legislation is pending in Congress that would provide disability or death allowances to service personnel who contract leukemia, thyroid cancer or a bone marrow disease within 20 years of exposure. The point here is not to draw a similarity between weapons of destruction and genetic engineering but to underscore the fact that enormous scientific breakthroughs have been accompanied by great unknowns. To its credit, the scientific community realized a decade ago when it first produced hybrids of genes that it might create microorganisms that could escape the lab and get into the environment.
A conference of scientists in Asilomar, Calif., led to the first gene research guidelines in 1975, primarily to deal with safety questions. Subsequently a committee was set up at the National Institutes of Health to review work in this area and approve federally funded experiments. A presidential commission on biomedical and behavior research took an initial look at these questions but it has gone out of business.
Whether one believes in the laws of God or the laws of nature, there is something fundamentally disturbing about the idea of injecting a human gene into pigs and sheep. The Foundation on Economic Trends and the Humane Society have filed suit in U.S. District Court to halt the experiments on grounds of cruelty to animals and on ethical grounds.
Jeremy Rifkin, a critic of genetic engineering who heads the foundation, says, "We have government statutes that preserve species and government statutes against cruelty to animals. We're saying that taking human genes and placing them into the hereditary makeup, these human genes will be permanently implanted in the makeup of these animals. It's our position every species has a certain integrity to it. In the long run, you undermine the biological basis of that species. It's a new form of extinction. "L"L ast year in Britain they took "L a cell from a sheep and a goat and blended them together with fusion technology. These species are totally unrelated. They developed a totally mature sheep goat. Our position on this is, where do you draw the line? If courts rule it's permissible to transfer one gene, then it would be consistent to say you could transfer two or more. The real question is, do we begin a long journey where we design life? There are no species boundaries anymore. That's what the public hasn't grasped."
Genetic engineering holds enormous promise for the world's food supply and the treatment of disease and genetic defects, but it also raises profound ethical and moral questions that touch on everything from species crossing for a better pig to genetic engineering to create a better human being. "The experiments would all be designed to benefit us," says Rifkin. "But when you start with the idea of defects in human beings, then move into what is the perfect human, we'll be very intolerant of imperfect people."
The House passed a bill in November 1983 to set up a presidential commission on genetic engineering and the Senate has passed a bill to set up a commission on the broader area of bioethics, but so far we are without a public forum to debate these questions.
In terms of human knowledge, genetic engeering is probably the biggest breakthrough since nuclear physics. Let us only hope we manage it better.