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Gene Envy

Biohazard by Michael Rogers Alfred A. Knopf, 209 pages, $8.95


MICHAEL ROGERS WAS there, well, almost from the beginning. He struggled through genetics textbooks while other journalists read UPI releases. He stayed awake during all-night meetings while government health officials snored in their seats. And every so often he sent off to Rolling Stone the latest chapter in the developing story of recombinant DNA.

Now brought together under the title Biohazard. Rogers' articles examine the controversy from the perspective of the scientists involved. His writing is clear and flowing, whether in the first or third person, but suffers somewhat from the too-often repeated use of climactic metaphors. Science, however, not style, is the chief concern of Biohazard.

On a theoretical level recombinant DNA experimentation is highly sophisticated. Procedures developed in the last five years use special enzymes to slice up and reassemble pieces of genes in the form of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. By mixing DNA from viruses, bacteria, and animals, molecular biologists can create novel hybrid organisms. Fear about the creation and accidental release of dangerous new forms of viruses and bacteria has been one focus of the recombinant DNA debate.

An in-depth description of recombinant DNA biology and technology would require dozens of pages of explanations, diagrams, and definitions. Furthermore, a solid understanding of such material is essential to a consideration of the risks and benefits of the research. Yet Rogers attempts to address the questions of biohazards without providing this scientific background.

There are no diagrams in Biohazard, no photographs and no glossary. Nonetheless there is a great deal of science discussed but in a manner more readable than meaningful. Rogers gives enough of the wrong kind of details to confuse the average reader but not enough of the right kind to satisfy a scientist.

Lacking a firm grasp of the molecular genetics base, the reader must rely on the author to sort out the question of biohazards. This Rogers does rather gingerly, rarely removing himself from the narrow conceptual framework of the science he is analyzing. He belittles both the character and concerns of many of the research's critics, portraying them as nameless clones of recently forgotten sixties radicals.

These caricatures of generally responsible opponents leave Rogers little time to consider the more basic issues raised by the DNA debate. Throughout the controversy it has been the DNA researchers themselves who decided how and whether the research should continue. Only in the last chapter of the book does Rogers tackle the ethical problems surrounding the goals and methods of the decision-making process to date.

Ever since July 1974, when they first called public attention to the possible hazards of their research, the recombinant DNA researchers have kept non-scientists almost completely outside of the regulatory process. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Recombinant DNA Molecule Program Advisory Committee had only one non-scientist among 16 members. Furthermore, a recombinant researcher, David Hogness of Stanford, headed a subcommittee which drafted guidelines for the research. Jonathan King of Science for the People likened the situation to "having the chairman of General Motors write the specifications for safety belts."

Biohazard does briefly mention the role of certain Harvard scientists, particularly Charles Thomas of the Medical School, in trying to water down restrictions in their own areas of research. Absent, however, is any information on the effects of regulation of recombinant DNA research on the careers of the researchers involved. Such information makes it clear why the scientists cannot be expected to act primarily in the public interest.

Missing from Rogers are unpublished NIH figures which show that as of January 1 of this year Harvard researchers' grants from the NIH for ongoing recombinant DNA research totaled $528.627. Stanford's biochemists bad NIH grants for recombinant DNA projects totaling $1.439.676.

Restrictions on research would threaten not only millions in grant support, but would also hurt the recombinant DNA researchers' chances for honor and recognition. Wallace P. Rowe, a member of the NIH Advisory Committee, neatly summarized the importance of the research to young molecular geneticists: "You're dead if you don't do it."

In order to defend their freedom to continue experimentation the recombinant DNA researchers have been willing to sacrifice the freedom of speech of their fellow scientists. Harvard junior faculty members jeopardized their careers if they objected to the tenured colleagues' research. Ursula Goodenough, associate professor of Biology, dropped out of the controversy, saying, "... I didn't want to lay my head on this particular block ... all of us were feeling very pressured."

SINCE THEN proponents have barraged the press and Congress with evidence they claim proves that recombinant DNA experiments can be safe. The campaign succeeded last week in getting Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.) to withdraw support from his own bill to legislate regulation of the research. Yet scientific assurances about potential dangers of their experiments have often proved false in the past. Robert A. Millikan, winner of the 1923 Nobel prize in physics, predicted that atomic energy would never be harnessed by man. When that idea was discredited scientists told the public that radioactive fallout was only minimally dangerous. Then came Hiroshima and Strontium 90 and Iodine 131.

There is an additional risk when scientists become convinced that their experiments' potential for ill effect is relatively small. They become casual and careless, discarding safety in the interest of efficiency. The September 30, 1977 issue of Science reported that this type of attitude has already led to a breach of the NIH safety rules. Out of either carelessness or intentional neglect researchers in the biochemistry and biophysics departments of the University of California at San Francisco used a noncertified biological component and failed to record its use in the official logbook.

These scientists and their colleagues now hold what Rogers calls the "reins of evolution." Absorbed in their laboratory work, many lack the perspective to understand, or often even notice the choices that lie ahead. As Rogers notes in an otherwise short-sighted book, there is one significant exception. Robert Sinsheimer, chairman of Biology at the California Institute of Technology, continues to address these issues:

the potential broader social or ethical implications of initiating this line of research--of its role, as a possible prelude to longer-range, broader-scale genetic engineering of the fauna and flora of the planet including ultimately, man...Shall we take into our hands our own future evolution?

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