Revenge of the mutant organisms

Our trust in biotechnology and faith in the quick fix expose our ignorance - and leave us vulnerable
Unnoticed beneath the mounds of mad cows last week was a strange coincidence. While ministers struggled with the nuances of scientific truth and the voter appeal of beef burning, a small document crept quietly out of the Prime Minister's office. This document was also about science and rogue fragments of organic chemistry. But it was not about cows, it was about GMOs - genetically modified organisms.

To understand the full resonance of this coincidence it is necessary to understand what the mad cow story is really about. It is about a group of people who, like the Bourbons, remember everything and learn nothing. Who exactly these people are I don't know, but they are evidently technologists and scientists of some kind. What they did was feed sheep to cows just as they previously fed hens to hens. As a result they probably transferred the malevolent prion that causes BSE and CJD across the species barrier first to cows and then to us.

This was a stupid thing to do because, as anybody with any biological knowledge could have told them, creating such a dietary closed circuit would instantly magnify any risk factors. It was doubly stupid because it echoed a mistake made by an earlier generation of technologists who blithely killed insects with DDT while assuring the world that the amounts involved were too small to affect other creatures.In fact, they simply did not understand the system with which they were tinkering - the DDT also killed birds because of the concentrating effects of the food chain. With both BSE and DDT eager technologists took an excessively simple-minded view of the workings of nature and we all paid the price.

Now back to GMOs. Ever since the early 1970s we have been able to manipulate DNA and thereby change the genetic structure of living creatures. When this first became a possibility the scientists panicked and imposed a moratorium on all recombinant DNA experiments. Biological anxiety swept through the culture: rogue organisms - "superbugs" - might escape from the lab, devastating crops or people. Michael Crichton, inevitably, wrote a paranoid movie - The Andromeda Strain - about the possibility. Once released these organisms could never be recaptured, spreading through the biosphere - raging, destructive mutants.

But nothing happened and the biological anxiety subsided. The original analysis of the biologists appeared to be correct - statistically, artificial modifications would be highly unlikely to result in any organism that could compete in the wild. Natural selection over billions of years has produced a robust, competitive ecology. The chances of a released GMO being competitively superior to nature's products was vanishingly remote. There was a risk but it was too small to quantify.

Since then biological knowledge has increased geometrically. Agriculture is being transformed by genetic engineering. Plants and animals - remember the cloned sheep - have had their genotypes adjusted to suit human demands. Viruses and bacteria are manipulated to improve crops or target disease. And, as the biologists, backed by vast sums of money, close in on the total human genome, we have become the next in line.

The Anglo-American view of this has been straightforwardly optimistic - the dangers were exaggerated, the possible benefits are vast. In Europe, however, there has been caution. In Germany genetics is viewed with intense suspicion. There Nazism provided a brutal demonstration of how genetic theory could become eugenic practice. When Hitler was in prison his primary reading matter was a text book of genetics. It was a book that was wrong in almost every respect, but it provided convenient justification for mass murder.

As a result, EU genetic law has been substantially more cautious than American. Now British environmentalists, catching up with their European colleagues, have begun to take an interest. The Government Panel on Sustainable Development, chaired by Sir Crispin Tickell and established by John Major, reported in January and called for a conference to establish international standards to control the release of GMOs. Last week's document was the Government's response.

The response is remarkable because, although it dispenses the usual flannel about things being pretty much OK as they are, it also accepts the panel's call to set up a conference within the next 12 months on possible biotechnological hazards. This would aim for international agreement on the control of GMOs.

This is a startling commitment which indicates a certain admirable seriousness within the Government about biotechnology. The response was certainly written well before BSE took off as an issue. So clearly, somewhere in Whitehall, somebody was thinking seriously about biology before the cows drove us mad.

Seriousness in this area is welcome because BSE has highlighted something we should have known - that a little biological knowledge is a very dangerous thing. And, when set against the fabulous complexity of the living world, the sum total of all human biological knowledge remains very small indeed. We have acquired ingenious methods for manipulating the code of life, but, beyond that, our ignorance is vast. In Darwin biology may have had its Galileo, but it has yet to have its Newton or Einstein. This places us in a dangerous phase of scientific history. The eerie, mechanical simplicity of the DNA molecule resonates in our imaginations, tempting us to think that the whole of life is also simple. Meanwhile, money and hubris conspire to convince us we can do more than we can. And the naive contemporary belief in the quick fix, the magic bullet, the wonder drug leads us to place uncritical faith in the claims of the biologists. Even they have grown nervous at this state of affairs. Harold Varmus, the head of the National Institutes of Health in Washington, recently told geneticists to stop making inflated claims for gene therapy - it was giving science a bad name and raising false hopes in the desperately ill.

The reality is that living systems have revealed themselves as far more complex, subtle and interdependent than we could ever have imagined. And it is the interdependence that we know least about. In the last paragraph of On the Origin of the Species Darwin wrote in wonder of "an entangled bank" in which plants, birds, insects, worms lived in incalculably complex interaction. Now we could add billions of viruses and bacteria to Darwin's list, we could talk of DNA of which Darwin knew nothing - but we could not claim to be any nearer penetrating all the mysteries of even that humble ecology.

Yet in ignorance we apply DDT, prescribe thalidomide or turn farm animals into cannibals. Similarly - though, so far, not catastrophically - we release GMOs to engineer the living world. But in the light of what we now know the soothing statistical faith of the scientists in the 1970s looks profoundly unconvincing. Our ignorance of living systems has been exposed once too often. Biological anxiety is back, this time for good.