Prometheus Bound
Cloning Bears Identical Reactions

by Fred L. Smith Jr.

Fred L. Smith Jr. ispresident of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

The ink had barely dried on the Washington Times’ clever headline on the Scottish sheep cloning story, "Hello Hello, Dolly, Dolly!" before politicians were calling for bans. President Clinton was first to express "serious concern." Repre-sentative Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), a physicist by training, echoed his sentiments. He reasoned that to prevent horrible regulation, we should impose bad regulation.

The response to cloning was predictable and indicative of the troubled political history of biotechnology. The discovery of the double helix structure of DNA and later, the ability to recombine DNA, made many uneasy. Technophobe Jeremy Rifkin described biotechnology as "a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust, and even more profound." Repetition of the "mistake" of unleashing nuclear power had to be avoided. Scientists could no longer allow others to decide how to use new and potentially destructive discoveries. They assumed the role Olympians, deciding whether the technology would be released or suppressed.

Thus in the early 1970s, James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, and several microbiologists urged a moratorium on further research until the dangers of gene-splicing could be assessed. At a meeting in Pacific Grove, California in 1975, scientists urged the National Institutes of Health to impose guidelines governing DNA experiments.

Congress, led by then-Congressman Al Gore (D-Tenn.), among others, was poised to codify the NIH guidelines when it was discovered that gene splicing occurs spontaneously in nature regularly. Scientists realized that they had been a little hasty. Watson admitted "Scientifically, I was a nut. . . . There is no evidence at all that recombinant DNA poses the slightest danger." Biophysicist Bill Zimmerman, an early advocate of legislation, concluded, "In looking back, it would be hard to insist that a law was necessary, or perhaps, that guidelines were necessary."

But fear of biotech has done much greater harm than would ever be likely from new discoveries. For example, Advanced Genetic Sciences developed a product, Frost Ban, to reduce frost damage to plants. A common bacteria, Pseudomonas syringae, found on many plants, produces chemicals which facilitate ice crystal formation. Researchers were able to delete the responsible gene, providing some protection to delicate strawberry plants. Rationalizing that the modified bacteria might replace the "ice plus" bacteria which can be viewed as a "pest," the EPA asserted that it was pesticide; even though no new genetic material was introduced to the environment. Unfortunately, the state of California required protective moonsuits to be worn during testing and the industry went along. Thus while industry press releases noted that the microorganisms being applied to the strawberries were completely safe, the visual message of the moonsuits was, "This stuff is dangerous!" The public relations debacle forced the company to drop attempts to market the product.

Some genetically engineered foods met the same fate. Anti-biotech activists frightened the public away from the Flavr Savr Tomato, modified to resist softening, and bST, a hormone which increases milk production in cows.

Against this backdrop, there is still hope that the response to cloning will be a lot more staid. While politicians pontificate about the dangers of cloning, press stories point out the potential benefits from such a breakthrough.

The scientific community is also avoiding past mistakes. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, in testimony before Congress, warned against hasty regulation that may block important cloning research. And in the 6 March 1977 issue of Nature, geneticist Steve Jones warns that our political leaders are unable "to differentiate between the plausible and the impossible."

Technological innovation does pose risks, but so also does technological stagnation. Political bans on human cloning research would slow and possibly halt many promising developments in medical research; it could drive research to countries less equipped to balance safety with development. The biotechnology revolution has already yielded enormous benefits, notwithstanding the obstructionist tactics of the doomsayers. It is essential that the mistakes of the past be avoided and that scientists check rather than inflame the passions of politicians.

 


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