Asilomar Revisited

InIn Marcia Marcia Barinaga's Barinaga's News FocusNews article Focus article The survival strategies of may hint at how some "Asilomar"Asilomar revisited: revisited: Lessons Lessons for today?" for (3 today?" (3 forms of could have survived global ages as proposed by the Mar.,Mar., p. p.1584), 1584), there there is no indication is no indication "snowball " hypothesis. A meeting held in commemoration whetherwhetherof the the recent recent symposium symposium marking the marking the the 1975 Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA prompts dis- 25th25th anniversary anniversary of the of Asilomar the Asilomar Confer- Confer- cussion about the ownership of genes: "The ethics and risks of ge- ence on recombinant DNA addressed two netic technologies...surround the questions of who owns these of the most important ethical issues sur- rounding the applications of genetic tech- [genes and technologies] and to what ends are they directed-prof- nology; namely, the ownership of genes and it or the public good?" Advice is offered on how to improve the sci- commercial exploitation of the technology. entific expertise of the State Department. A chemist reminisces Companies operating for profit direct about a hot field of study in the 1950s-reactions that occur theirat investment toward the most prof- itable areas; however, these are not neces- negative pH values. And how details in portraits by artist Chuck sarily the areas of greatest need. Empirical Close trigger the perception of shadow and depth is discussed. evidence shows that pharmaceutical com- panies will research remedies for the mi- Life on Snowball Earth frozenfrozen into into the theice and ice are and inactive are inactivethrough through nor ills of large numbers of people in the mostmost of of the the year. year. They Theythaw out thaw for aout brief for a brief richer countries before looking at life- In his News Focus article "An appealing (days(days to to weeks) weeks) period period of photosynthetic of photosynthetic threatening diseases that affect few people snowball Earth that's still hard to swallow" activityactivity in inlate late summer summer when meltwaters when meltwaters or those that affect large numbers of peo- (10 Mar., p. 1734), Richard A. Kerr pro- formform on on or orin thein icethe despite ice despite air tempera- air tempera- ple in developing countries. The vested in- vides an update on the "snowball Earth" turestures that that are arebelow below 0?C (3, 0?C 4). (3, 4). terests of for-profit organizations suggest hypothesis (1), which proposes that TheThe modern-day modern-day ice shelf ice communitiesshelf communities that it may be better for all if genetic infor- inin bothboth polar polar regions regions are dominated are dominated mation and genes themselves remain pub- byby oscillatorian oscillatorian cyanobacteria, cyanobacteria, a alic property. This is one of the most pow- groupgroup that that is widely is widely distributed distributed in in erful technologies ever to be under the fossil record. These control, with a potential to alter the course mat-forming organisms produce mi- of evolution. Should this technology be crohabitats for other biota, including driven by commercial interests? viruses, bacteria, , and meta- President Bill Clinton and Prime Min- zoa. The ice-mat environment offers ister Tony Blair have recently moved to protection against the effects of ul- protect the human genome from exclusive traviolet radiation and freeze-up and commercial ownership. However, such ef- could have similarly provided refuge forts do not take into consideration the ex- for the survival, growth, and evolu- tensive overlap between human genes and tion of less tolerant biota during the the genes of other species. It would seem A cyanobacterial ice mat (-15 centimeters acro ss) proposed Proterozoic glaciations (4). impossible to protect human genes from in a meltwater pool on the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf. The alternation of global freeze-up any form of ownership or exploitation and hothouse conditions during the when a gene with the same function may around 600600 and and 2400 2400 million million years years ago ago in inProterozoic might also help to explain the be derived from another species. Further- the Proterozoic era there were several eurythermal characteristics (5) of more, in Australia a patent must show the global ice ages interspersed with periods cyanobacteria that dominate in today's attributes of novelty and inventiveness. of global warming. One of the primary polar regions. The extreme cold tolerance Naturally occurring genes cannot possibly criticisms of the snowball Earth hypothe- of these organisms combined with their show either of these qualities. How, then, sis is that thick sea ice over the entire high-temperature optima for growth can they meet the criteria for patenting? world ocean would cut off the supply would of seem to be an ideal strategy for The ethics and risks of genetic tech- sunlight to organisms in the surviving be- the "freeze-fry" (6) travails of nologies do not lie so much in the re- low and thereby eliminate . ancient Earth. search, knowledge, or technologies them- Others have similarly concluded that glob- Warwick F.Vincent selves; instead, the ethics and risks sur- al-scale freezing would extinguish all Departementsur- de Biologie, Universite Laval, Sainte- round the questions of who owns these Foy, Quebec, Canada G1K 7P4. E-mail: warwick. factors and to what ends are they direct- face life (2). Yet vast, biologically diverse [email protected] cryo- occur today throughout Clive Howard-Williams ed-profit or the public good? the Arctic and . John Coulter National Institute of Water and Re- The closest analog to Proterozoic search Ltd., Box 8602, Christchurch, New Zealand. Box 29, Longwood 5153, South Australia snowball Earth may be the thick (20 to E-mail: [email protected] 100 meters) landfast sea ice in the mod- Editors'note ern-day polar regions. On the McMurdo References Our coverage of the conference at Asilo- 1. P. F. Hoffman et al, Science 281,1342 (1998). mar in February was not able to mention Z Ice Shelf in Antarctica (3) and on the 2. D. M. Williams et al, 396, 453 (1998). Ward Hunt Ice Shelf in the Canadian High 3. C. Howard-Williams et aL, Antarct. Sci. 1, 125 (1989). every important issue raised at the meet- Z Arctic (4), large areas (100 to 1000 square 4. W. F.Vincent et aL, Naturwissenschaften 87,137 (2000). ing. Because of space considerations, an kilometers) of thick sea ice contain sur- 5. E. P. Y. Tang, R. Tremblay, W. F. Vincent, J. PhycoL 33, editorial decision was made to choose 171 (1997). face communities of highly pigmented mi- 6. P. F. Hoffman and D. P. Schrag, Sci. Am., 68 (January several examples of issues that were men- crobial mats. These perennial mats are 2000). tioned, and gene ownership was not

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