Myth of gene god exploded

September 8, 1995

The Health and Safety Commission has dismissed as "science fiction" fears that genetic engineering will lead to the creation of "mermaids and dinosaurs", writes Kam Patel.

Launching a report by the commission's advisory committee on genetic modifications, chairman Frank Davies last week said the idea that scientists were "playing God" had proved groundless.

The committtee was confident that the combination of events needed to produce a harmful organism accidentally was "very improbable". With huge advances in ensuring technology is controllable, organisms could now be designed to be safe, he said.

But David Shapiro, executive secretary of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, argued that experience is limited and a cautious approach was still needed. He said that the committee had a good track record and that its work to ensure the safe development of genetic modification was "praiseworthy".

The report said that scientists themselves were alarmed by the dangers during early years of the science and undertook the unusual step of restricting their own research. This included voluntary bans on work with certain organisms while the risks were assessed and controls put in place. These steps have been backed by Government.

"Greater understanding has meant that while not all of the early fears have entirely gone away they are now seen as less likely to be realised in a disastrously uncontrolled way, especially as far as human health is concerned," it said.

Genetic modification: risks and safeguards, available from HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6FS. Pounds 10.95 uses of DNA testing, page 6

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