GM animals 'have role for third world'
Tim Radford, science editor
Monday May 21, 2001
Genetically modified farm animals - altered to resist tropical diseases such as sleeping sickness - could play a powerful role in helping the developing world, according to a report today by Britain's science elite, the Royal Society.
While battle still rages over trials of GM crops in the UK, the scientists expect the use of GM animals in laboratory research to increase. But they want research into the welfare of such animals to be backed by public funds, and they want the results of that research to be published openly.
Laboratory mice were genetically modified first more than 20 years ago. There are now herds of GM sheep and goats producing human proteins for a new generation of treatments, which could soon be available for emphysema, cystic fibrosis and one form of haemophilia.
The Royal Society report sees a role for GM farm animals -sheep resistant to scrapie, cattle that can shrug off foot and mouth, chickens without salmonella - in the more distant future.
It argues that all laboratories using GM animals should have emergency plans in case they escape. The laboratories should also have carefully assessed the possible environmental risks.
The report also calls for an immediate moratorium on the rearing of GM fish in the sea. If genetically altered salmon or other fish do go into commercial production, they should be reared only in landlocked lakes from the fish could not escape.
"One of the things that has emerged from the debate on genetically modified plants is the need for the wide dissemination of knowledge, so that a lot of this work should be publicly funded. When new techniques become available which have real benefits for the third world, it should be possible to get them to the third world. It should not be blocked," said Patrick Bateson, vice-president of the Royal Society, who headed the working group.
"Genes have been introduced into animals by viruses for a long time. This is a natural process, and of course humans have been genetically modifying animals in a non-technical way for thousands of years. In medical research it has been going on through genes being modified by radiation, or chemicals. What is being done now is much more targeted."
Traditional selection techniques had bred heavier and heavier chickens, and by degrees the birds had developed terrible problems with their legs. "That's a problem which already exists. With genetic modification, the problems are spotted much more quickly so there is a benefit in welfare terms."
Around 98% of all GM mammals are mice. They have been used for 20 years in research into a huge range of diseases, from cancer to BSE. More than 500,000 were used in Britain in 1999.
There is strict regulation to prevent their escape. But even if they did, argued Elizabeth Fisher of Imperial College, there would be little chance of spreading their genes into the population of wild mice. "Most of them have been genetically modified to provide information about human disease, and they are not fit to survive in the wild," she said.
The scientists argue that modern genetic modification - the elimination of a gene or the introduction of a new one - is only a refinement of traditional breeding, which moves thousands of genes around in a succession of animals, over many generations.
"There are people with extreme fantasies in this area. There will be people who want to make an issue out of this anyway, and there will certainly be people who say we are playing God," said Professor Bateson.
"Our response to this is that we have been playing God for an awful long time. The idyllic organic farms Prince Charles would like us to have will have animals that have been genetically modified for thousands of years. The horse he rides has been modified, and the hounds that run by their side have been modified. It's not a new issue."
"The propagandists who say this is business as usual are, not to put too fine a point on it, lying." UK author and columnist, Brian Appleyard