The company scheduled to release the first live gene-engineered microbe into the field showed "a real lack of wisdom" in releasing it nine months before permitted by federal regulations, the company's research director told Congress yesterday.
In hearings before a House Science and Technology subcommitee, Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.) presented John Bedbrook of Advanced Genetic Sciences Inc. with surprise documents that appeared to show further dispute between what the company told the Environmental Protection Agency about its experiments and what it did.
For more than a year, Advanced Genetic Sciences has sought approval to field-test a gene-engineered microbe, dubbed Frostban, that would be sprayed on plants to help guard against frost. The first experiment was to be carried out on strawberries in a small lot in the Salinas region of California.
After public controversy, the company received EPA approval last Nov. 14 to test it in the open air. Opposition by Salinas officials has stalled the procedure.
The Washington Post reported last week that the company had released the microbe over a six-month period beginning in February 1985 by injecting it into trees on the roof of its building in Oakland.
The EPA quickly determined that the company had violated federal regulations by not performing its tests within a containment facility.
The company initially maintained that the trees themselves provided "containment." EPA and company spokesmen testified yesterday that the company never sought permission for open-air testing and, in documents sent to the EPA, skirted the question of where and how trees were tested.
Bedbrook testified that the rooftop tests were as unlikely to scatter the microbe into the environment as tests in a greenhouse would have been.
As Bedbrook spoke, Volkmer distributed notes, apparently made by someone familiar with the experiment, and a photograph described as showing a canker, possibly caused by Frostban, on one tree.
Bedbrook said company pathologists are certain that no canker was caused by the common bacterium. But Volkmer's document referred to four cankers or canker-like wounds on the trees.
Bedbrook refused to comment directly on the material. Later, EPA pesticide programs director Steven Schatzow said that, if Frostban were found to cause such damage in trees or any other plant, it probably would not be approved for field use.
Under questioning, Schatzow said EPA officials did not visit the Salinas site until recently and then discovered that it is adjacent to a residential area so near the company site that some testing and microbe-killing would be done on the neighbors' property.
Another inconsistency between the company proposal to the EPA and the actual experiment was a statement that tests of the microbe would be done in a controlled environment at 21 degrees Centigrade, the subcommittee was told. In fact, the trees were subjected to a great variety of temperatures and wind conditions that an expert testified could considerably alter the test results.
Schatzow said the EPA expects to finish its investigation by the end of this month.