Bacterial Gene Swapping in Nature; January 1998; Scientific American Magazine; by Miller; 6 Page(s)
In the early 1980s, as scientists were perfecting techniques for splicing foreign genes into bacteria, some investigators began suggesting ways to use the technology to benefit the environment. For instance, they proposed that genetically engineered bacteria might be deployed for such tasks as cleaning oil spills or protecting crops from predation and disease. But the enterprise, known as environmental biotechnology, soon came under fire.
Then, as now, the proposals elicited concern that the altered microbes might run amok or that their genes would hop unpredictably to other organisms--a phenomenon termed "horizontal" gene transfer (to distinguish it from the "vertical" transfer occurring between a parent and its offspring). Such activities, it was feared, might somehow irreparably harm the environment, animals or people. Some observers even issued dire warnings that the unnatural organisms would destroy the earth. No longer were tabloids worried about attacks by "killer tomatoes" from outer space; now the danger was homegrown-- genetically altered microorganisms that would eat the environment.