Papers in the Biological Sciences


Date of this Version



CRC Critical Reviews in Biotechnology (1988) 8(1): 85-97. F.E. Sharples, reviewer.


Copyright 1988, Taylor & Francis. Used by permission.


Can we guarantee the safety of genetically engineered organisms in the environment? To anticipate my remarks, the answer to the title question is “No, we cannot guarantee the safety of genetically engineered organisms released into the environment.” Indeed, it is a tenet of the scientific method that nothing can be proved, only disproved. Thus, we can never show that a release will be safe. We could only show that it would be unsafe, if that were the case. However, if the question is posed differently, for example, can we safely release genetically engineered organisms into the environment?, the answer is probably “yes.”

My role in this review is to express environmental perspectives in the deliberate release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. With that in mind, I will do the following:

1. Describe the proposed uses for genetically engineered organisms in the environment

2. State reasons for concern about undesirable consequences of release

3. Relate some problems I believe are inherent in assessing safety

4. Indicate some of what we presently know and do not know

5. Offer some perspectives

The terminology of biotechnology is used by different people in different ways. My concern here is with genetic engineering in the sense of functional insertion of genes from one organism into another, making a mosaic organism. In deliberate release, this organism is intended to survive and reproduce in the environment for at least a few weeks. Thus, the containment policies carefully worked out in the last decade will be intentionally bypassed. While many kinds of new technological applications are being proposed for genetically engineered organisms, this review is concerned with novel, hybrid organisms with functioning alien genes that are set outdoors with the expectation that they will grow and reproduce.