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Nature no longer dictates the terms

Maybe you were worried about Dolly, the cloned sheep that had us all jabbering about the brave new world of genetic engineering. But it is the Cornell potato that has rocked my world.

Dolly was, after all, just a sheep, albeit a sheep whose genetic heritage was supplied entirely by her ovine mother. (As an acquaintance put it, all we need is more sheep that look just alike.) But that potato . . .

Perhaps you saw the story about the potatoes engineered (by scientists at the Cornell University-affiliated Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research) to contain a gene from a bacterium that causes traveler's diarrhea. Human subjects who ate the potatoes produced antibodies that gave them immunity to the disease. The experiment thus holds out hope for the genetic treatment of a variety of human diseases and must be reckoned as progress.

But it also makes explicit what has intrigued scientists for some time: The crossing of widely dissimilar species _ even the crossing of plants with animals _ to capture the advantages of each and, perhaps, to make a ton of money for those who patent the new entities.

Crossbreeding of similar species is an ancient practice, both as a deliberate human undertaking and as a matter of natural development. It is the process that has brought us specific breeds (German shepherd dogs and Siamese cats), improved vegetables (stringless green beans and those lovely pale-pink and tough-skinned tomatoes) and hybrids (tangelos and mules).

But as Jeremy Rifkin notes in his new book, The Biotech Century, the crossbreeding has always involved the continual crossing of relatives, often through trial and error, in which "nature dictated the terms of engagement." No more.

"The new gene-splicing technologies allow us to break down the walls of nature, making the innards of the genome vulnerable to a new kind of human colonization," Rifkin says. "Transferring genes across all biological barriers is a technological tour de force, unprecedented in human history. We are experimenting with nature in ways never before possible, creating unfathomable new opportunities for society and grave new risks for the environment."

The issues ushered in by Rifkin's "biotech revolution" _ which he describes as the merging of computer technology and genetic engineering _ include not just new forms of plant and animal life but also the possibilities of human eugenics on a scale beyond anything even Hitler might have imagined. It's easy to see how the ethical dilemmas will sneak up on us. We'll hail it as a mighty breakthrough when scientists learn to tweak genes so as to negate predisposition to disease or deformity. And to dwarfism, and obesity and . . . and then we'll have a rip-roaring debate over which physical _ and mental _ imperfections qualify as "disease" and thus for genetic manipulation. Less-than-average height? Receding hairlines? Dark skin? How can we deny to genetic engineers the right to correct what plastic surgeons and orthodontists correct all the time?

And how will we distinguish ethically between aesthetic results that come from spouse selection and those that come from gene-tweaking? Isn't genetic engineering _ at least within like species _ merely an amplification of what nature always has done?

On what basis will we be denied our Second Genesis? How will we justify even such concerns as protecting the environment when we have the ability to create whatever environment we desire?

But we also know full well that genetic scientists cannot predict every result of what they do _ any more than agriculturists could have predicted the predations of gypsy moths or the kudzu-infested forests of Mississippi. Almost certainly some of our genetic inventions will go wrong. Earth-threateningly wrong? Who knows?

And yet, as Rifkin understands, you can't put this genie back into the lamp. The ability to do the previously impossible, thanks to genetics and computers, will mean that someone will do it _ particularly given the economic implications. And each new artificially introduced organism will multiply the chances of disaster.

So while you're agonizing over Dolly, my fear is that we may find ourselves saddled with some voracious new "planimal" that cures one disease while causing three more, that spreads like kudzu _ and won't even taste like chicken.

Washington Post Writers Group