A researcher at Montana State University, admitting that he violated federal regulations by releasing genetically engineered microbes into the environment, said he did it as an act of "civil disobedience," according to a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA is expected to announce action soon against Gary Strobel, a professor of plant pathology at Montana State, who has been working on a cure for Dutch Elm disease for several years.
Last June 13, Strobel injected a genetically engineered organism, Pseudomonas syringae, into 14 elm trees, hoping that the bacteria would release an antifungal substance in the tree to combat the fungal disease.
He did not apply for a permit until two days after the injection, according to Cliff Bond, Montana State professor and chairman of the school's biosafety committee.
Because the bacterium was genetically altered to enhance the antifungal action, federal regulations require that a permit must be obtained before such experiments outside the laboratory.
The regulations were established because the effect of natural bacteria with newly added traits is uncertain if the bacteria are free to reproduce in the environment.
EPA officials said the experiment probably would have been approved had Strobel waited for permission.
According to news reports, Strobel told the university biosafety committee Wednesday that federal officials had told him "what the regulations were, and I defied it." He reportedly told the panel that he "knew it was not a legal thing."
"I'm expressing civil disobedience," he told reporters after the meeting. "We can sit and talk about Dutch Elm disease or we can do something about it. I chose to do something about it."
Bond, saying he could not understand Strobel's actions, said Strobel told the committee that he wanted to perform his experiment in this season and that "he knew that, if he waited for a permit, he would lose a year's work and would have to wait to next season to inject the trees."
Strobel's act, covered by EPA regulations and National Institutes of Health guidelines, makes him liable for punishment ranging from being stripped permanently of federal funding to criminal penalties.
Bond said the biosafety committee plans to seek strong university sanctions against Strobel and has sent its recommendations and findings to the EPA and the NIH.