Scientists Condemn New Gene
The Observer (UK)
November 24, 2002
Scientists Condemn New Gene Technique
by Antony Barnett and Robin McKie
Researchers have developed a technique to speed evolution by
inserting human cancer-causing genes into animals and plants.
Hundreds of mutant breeds - which would normally take nature
millennia to produce - could be developed in months by the method,
known as hypermutability.
But the technique - designed to improve production of new animal and
crop breeds - has shocked many scientists and environmentalists. Some
say the process could result in organisms with human cancer-causing
genes being released into the environment. Others worry that attempts
to accelerate evolution could be dangerous.
However, its creator, the US-based company Morphotek, says it could be
valuable to drug and agriculture companies, making it possible to
isolate highly profitable breeds, drought-resistant plants or
Details of the method were passed to The Observer last week by a
senior British researcher working for one of Europe's largest biotech
corporations. Although a keen supporter of GM technology, the
scientist was dismayed to learn about Morphotek's plans after its
directors launched a sales tour of Europe.
'I was completely shocked,' he said. 'What would happen if an organism
containing such a dangerous gene escaped? What if a gene got into the
food chain? Some people could suffer fatal reactions.'
The method involves the isolation of a gene involved in repairing DNA.
Some people inherit a version called PMS2-134, which is defective, and
become prone to colon cancer.
Putting this gene into animals, plants and bacteria will destabilize
their DNA and cause them to create many more mutant offspring than
normal. Most mutations will die out, but a greater than usual number
will survive, the company says. Thus the rate of creating new plants
that can resist disease or animals that can metabolize food more
effectively will be increased.
'You can see the logic _ but it's like sitting a monkey at a
typewriter and hoping it will write Hamlet one day. It isn't worth the
risks,' GM expert Les Firbank of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology
said. His point was backed by geneticist Michael Antoniou, of King's
College London. 'It would be cruel to animals and potentially
dangerous,' he said.
Friends of the Earth food campaigner Pete Riley said: 'It is amazing
this technology has progressed so far in the US without being
But Nicholas Nicolaides, chief executive of Morphotek, said the
work was safe. When a mutant breed with commercial opportunity was
found, it would be simple to breed out the cancer-causing gene, he
said, adding: 'We are not using animals for this process at this time,
just mammalian cells.'