The Sorcerers New Apprentice?

Biotech Update

Who does not remember the old castle, Mickey clad in the sorcerers robe and hat, the psychedelic armies of brooms, and the relentless march of the Dukas symphony? Only when the castle was flooded did the sorcerer wake up and dry it with a spell. Mickey got off lightly with a swat of the broom. We may not be so fortunate.

Science often appears as a close cousin of sorcery. Science brings to life the tales of old: flying through the air at the speed of sound; communicating with images at the speed of light; traveling even to the moon; and, even the power of healing.

The explosive advances in science and technology have already gone far beyond what even science fiction writers once thought possible. Biotechnologists may well prove to be the ''Sorcerers Apprentices'' of the 21st century. And these advances raise challenging issues of ethics, morals, and even our theological perspectives.

Genetic Engineering

Of all the many scientific discoveries, the field which clearly has become the most controversial is the study of genetics. Farmers have been genetically manipulating plants long before they knew about genes. Selective breeding, however, can enhance or suppress only those traits already present in a population. Modern genetic engineering (including such techniques as gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes) has freed the process of genetic modification from limitations imposed by the existing characteristics of a species, creating something that could not exist in nature.

Commercial applications of this technology thus far have concentrated on bioengineering pest resistance and herbicide tolerance into widely planted crops like corn, soy, cotton, and potatoes. Growers adopting these ''first generation'' genetically modified crops have been able to increase yields while significantly reducing costly inputs like chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

The StarLink Debacle

StarLink corn was a corn hybrid genetically modified to make it more profitable to grow. It contained two added genes - one for herbicide tolerance and one for insect resistance. The herbicide tolerance gene was the product of an earlier approval process. It was the addition of a gene derived from the bacterial species Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), coding for an insecticidal protein called Cry9C, that triggered the StarLink crisis. This controversial Cry9C variety, 50 to 100 times more potent than other Bt-spliced insecticides, caused critics to warn of dangerous food allergies in humans, with symptoms ranging from fever, rashes, and diarrhea to anaphylactic shock and sudden death. The FDA approved it only for animal feed.

On September 18, 2000, a coalition of consumer and environmental groups detected DNA fragments from StarLink corn in Taco Bell taco shells sold in grocery stores. Days later, Kraft Foods recalled all Taco Bell taco shells. Kraft's action started a frenzy of recalls as other manufacturers discovered StarLink corn in their products, too.

By November 2000, the FDA recalled nearly three hundred types of adulterated snack chips, corn flour, and other corn foods. The cost of these recalls ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Complaints began pouring into the FDA and the CDC about allergic reactions to corn products attributable to StarLink contamination. Overnight, StarLink became a ''Franken-food'' poster child - the incarnation of critics worst nightmares. International corn exports plummeted. The ensuing crisis paralyzed an entire sector of American agriculture and food production and badly shook consumer confidence. Even two years later, StarLink corn was still popping up in corn shipments.


It is certainly a ''brave new world'' in which science will obviously continue to outrun the lawmakers. The last time man pursued knowledge to such an extent, God intervened and scattered the people and confounded their languages. As the Bible says in Genesis 11:6, '' nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.'' How long will it be before His patience is once again exhausted?