During the next century research into genetic modification will advance markedly, but regulations must urge caution, says Pallab Ghosh.
This month sees the publication of proposed regulations on the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment. These regulations, if too rigid, could hold back in Britain the development of a technology that will be at least as important in the next century as electronics advances have been in this one. If, however, the regulations are too lax the potential consequences for life on this planet could be quite catastrophic.
Companies all over the world have already created entirely new types of life by replacing what they perceive to be weedy genes with better ones. Among these man-made creatures are micro-organisms which are used to develop more potent insecticides and vaccines, and plants that are more resistant to disease and stay fresh longer. Perhaps more controversially, scientists have created entirely new types of animals: a geep - a chimeric cross between a sheep and a goat - and a sheep with some human genes whose milk contains a chemical that can be used to treat haemophiliacs.
These creatures are probably among the first of myriad commercially created organisms that will be tailored and enhanced to meet our needs. The sphere is too new for any credible assessment to have been made of its potential value. But national governments and companies have already realised the importance of a technology that can, as one Californian company, Calgene, put it, "improve on nature".
One of the world's leading centres for research into the area is the Government-sponsored Centre for Genome Research in Edinburgh. Researchers at the centre were the first to successfully insert human genes into sheep and have demonstrated that genetic defects can be corrected in animals by replacing faulty genes. One commercial spin-off from their research is that animals carrying human genes can produce much needed human proteins.
But clearly a fledgeling industry whose business is to tinker with the very stuff of life cannot be left entirely unfettered, whatever the commercial possibilities. As the technology develops, governments will have to wrestle with increasingly complex ethical and moral issues, especially when it can be used to treat humans. But a more pressing concern is the safety of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment.
The British Government is tackling this issue in the Environmental Protection Act, which gained Royal Assent last year. It stipulates that any release of genetically modified organisms must be properly controlled.
The problem is that so little is known about the effect of genetically modified organisms on the environment that legislators are working in the dark. The most sensible course of action would be to have a moratorium on all commercial releases until more research is carried out. But biotechnology companies in Britain and the rest of Europe point out that excessive caution could stifle any new developments.