For immediate release Friday 22nd November 2002
Disturbing new research in the USA could take place in the UK under current regulations without any public debate about whether the creation of new life forms should be allowed at all.
Completely new organisms are to be created from scratch by US scientist, Craig Venter, (1). Funded by the US Government, the experiments herald a new departure in the use of genetic technologies. The research plans to reduce the number of genes in a bacteria normally found in the genital tract to the minimum required for life. Then the organism will be further manipulated to have different functions.
In the UK, the GM organisms could be required to be produced under strict containment and handled as if they were dangerous pathogens, but it is not possible to question whether they the organisms should be created or not (2) even though the artificial development of new species raises important social, ethical, ecological and safety issues.
"Even though the UK regulates the creation of genetically modified microorganisms in the laboratory, it is not possible to question whether the purpose of the research is useful or desirable," said Dr Sue Mayer, GeneWatch UKs Director. "There have been completely unexpected outcomes from the genetic modification of microorganisms in the past, sometimes bacteria and viruses have become much more dangerous. We simply dont know what the outcome of taking this path will be."
It is also possible that information about where the research was taking place and who was conducting it would be withheld from the public register of laboratory experiments with GM organisms on grounds of national security and prevention of terrorism (3). Such powers, which were introduced here after the anthrax and other terrorist attacks in America, offer little in terms of genuine protection (laboratory security is much more important) but restrict public oversight and build on the calls for access to certain scientific findings to be restricted.
"GeneWatch believes the Government must act to introduce new laws that allow for public scrutiny and require consultation on whether experiments to create new species should be allowed on social or ethical grounds. They must act quickly or public confidence in the control of science will evaporate," said Dr Mayer.
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For further information contact:
Dr Sue Mayer on 01298 871898.
Notes to Editors:
- The organism being used is known as Mycoplasma genitalium. Its genetic code has been mapped and a synthetic version, with only the minimum number of genes for survival remaining, has already been produced. The research, intended to build new organisms that can provide energy sources, will take place at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives in Maryland. An ethical committee commissioned by the researchers involved decided that there were no ethical or other reasons the research should not proceed. See: http://www.bioenergyalts.org/news.html
- In the UK, genetically modified microorganisms are regulated under the Genetically Modified Organisms (Contained Use) Regulations 2000 (S.I. 2000/2831), brought in to implement the Contained Use Directive (98/81/EC of 26 October 1998 amending Directive 90/219/EEC on the Contained Use of Genetically Modified Micro-organisms). These regulations require an assessment of the level of laboratory containment required, depending on the potential harm the GM organism could cause to human health or the environment. However, it is not possible to prevent an experiment taking place on the grounds that it is unethical or socially undesirable.
- The Genetically Modified Organisms (Contained Use) (Amendment) Regulations
2002, enables information to be withheld from the public register on ground
of national security. See www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg357.pdf