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Virus plan to track pollution rejected

(First Edition)

PLANS to use viruses with unique genetic 'tattoos' to help track pollution in rivers have been rejected by the Government's safety advisors. The scientists involved have been told they must produce more information on the risks of their planned experiment before they can hope for clearance.

This is the first time the Advisory Committee on Release to the Environment (Acre) has thrown a risk assessment back at a proposer since it began checking the safety of trials on genetically altered organisms under new environmental protection laws of 1990.

The proposal for the experiment comes from the National Rivers Authority (NRA) and a team at Lancaster University who hope to test the genetically modified viruses next summer in waterways that run into Morecambe Bay from a site in Heysham, near Lancaster. If the test is successful, the NRA hopes to place viruses, each tagged in a slightly different way, into the drainage systems of industrial plants suspected of causing pollution. Identifying the virus that appeared downstream, complete with tag, would pinpoint the source of the pollution. This could help the Government to enforce its 'polluter pays' principle.

The head of the Lancaster team, John Smith, is convinced the experiment is safe, and potentially of huge benefit to the environment. The salt water of Morecambe Bay should stop the viruses growing, and after a few months they should die off, he said.

But Acre has questioned aspects of his risk analysis. It believes the virus could infect more species than he has assumed. It could, for example, colonise human or animal guts. The committee also wants to know more about monitoring arrangements.