Designer diseases

ntial impact on the environment and can consult internationally. But it is not clear whether the OGTR has the power or the will to refuse to allow a transmissible GMO to be released in Australia because of its potential impact in another country. The head of the OGTR, Sue Meek, declined to be interviewed.

"The public is not even aware of these developments," says Robert Henzell of the Animal and Plant Control Commission in Adelaide, South Australia. He thinks that transmissible GMOs could be useful in places like Australia, with its vast tracts of sparsely populated land. But the job of pest control must be done safely, Henzell says. "We want to talk about these things before they are let go, rather than pick up the pieces later."

Tony Peacock, head of the PAC-CRC, argues that Australia's island status and its distance from other countries, allied with quarantine procedures, would be enough to stop a GMO from leaving its shores. But those barriers were not enough to stop people illegally taking calicivirus from Australia to New Zealand in 1997. Peacock also says that the consequences, should the mouse GMO escape, would not necessarily be disastrous, because the speed it spreads depends on the density of the mouse population. "The GMO is designed to avoid plaguing, not to wipe out a population," he says.

But that is not good enough for Henzell, who is organising a symposium on transmissible GMOs in New Zealand later this year. One topic up for discussion there is the development of safety measures that would help stop such organisms straying. One tactic would be to engineer a GMO to die out after few generations. But this runs counter to the whole idea of transmissible GMOs, which is that by being self-sustaining they avoid the huge expense of methods like laying bait.

Another option, says Henzell, would be to engineer an organism so that it is activated only in the presence of a specific chemical, such as something found only in the

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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