Schenectady, New York, is a quiet town of two-story frame houses, just north of Albany, that calls itself “The Electric City,” a reference not to psychedelia, but to the massive General Electric manufacturing and research complex that dominates the town’s economy. The merchandise vending machine in the local Holiday Inn dispenses, along with Certs, pepperoni and pocket razors, a $1.50 plastic slide rule. Inside the city limits, GE manufactures steam and gas turbines; outside, at the Research and Development Center, they manufacture progress.
While the center — a scatter of brick buildings on the bank of the Mohawk River — is not the largest industrial laboratory in the world, it may well be the most diversified. In less than five minutes, in a single building, one can walk from a sophisticated microbiological laboratory complete with ultracentrifuge and costly vials of exotic enzymes, to the two-and-a-half-story-high mechanical press that, two decades ago, produced the first synthetic diamond on the planet.
By now, even the diamond mining De Beers has a license to use GE’s patented diamond-making process. Patents, in fact, might well be construed to be the R&D Center’s most important product: A display of metal-etched photographs in the reception lobby honors the center employees who have contributed more than 50 patents each year. Last year, GE was granted two-thirds more patents in this country than the nearest runner-up and, on average, the R&D Center produced one of those patents each and every working day.
One of those patent applications, though, was rejected last year and is presently on appeal. An appealed patent application is not unique: The Patent Office appeal board is presently running about two years behind. What is unique, however, about this particular appeal, is that it involves the rights to a living organism.
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The industrial use of microorganisms — yeasts, mold and bacteria — is hardly new. The fermentation of alcoholic beverages with yeast is positively ancient; the use of mold to produce antibiotics like penicillin is, on another time scale, just about as venerable. In recent years the applications have grown numerous and a touch more esoteric; for example, the Japanese produce amino acids as cattle food supplement, and several European corporations are exploring large-scale yeast farming as a protein source.
In the same 24-hour period, while a 1000-pound steer produces one pound of protein. 1000 pounds of high-protein yeast turn into 4000 pounds. The potentials are, clearly, great, and it seemed altogether inevitable that sooner or later, some of the new and sophisticated techniques of molecular genetics — the reengineering of basic organisms in the laboratory — would find commercial application.
That inevitability has come to pass and one of the first such applications is the subject of GE’s disputed patent request. It seems that there is a genus of bacteria called Pseudomonas, found, generally, in soil and water and displaying an unusually broad appetite that happens, in certain strains, to include crude oil. In the past, in fact, the presence of these strains was even considered a possible indicator of underground petroleum.
The GE researcher, a young and personable Ph.D. named Ananda Chakrabarty, decided to look into the possibility of recruiting Pseudomonas as a cleanup squad for oil spills. The idea itself was neither new nor, at the outset, particularly workable. For all their odd appetite, Pseudomonas is, at heart, a touch finicky and no single strain exists in nature that will digest all of the components that make up crude oil. And should one dump in a mix of strains — each specializing in one portion of the petroleum — the bacteria end up spending so much time competing with each other that the job of oil digestion proceeds, in all, rather sloppily.
Chakrabarty, however, had already spent a great deal of time studying the genetic basis of Pseudomona’s gastronomic preference and had learned that the genetic information which allows the bugs to digest oil resides not in the large central chromosome but in tiny, extrachromosomal bits of DNA called “plasmids.” And plasmids, as molecular biologists have lately learned, are very handy little devices for shuttling genetic information between bacteria — both in nature and in the laboratory.
Chakrabarty isolated the specific plasmids that control petroleum digestion from a set of different Pseudomonas strains and then, using some tricky laboratory work, managed to sneak four of them into a single bacterial cell — which then developed the capacity to digest, all by itself, most of the various hydrocarbons that constitute crude oil. That same bacterium, moreover, proceeded to pass the ability on to its descendants.
A new strain of bacteria, in essence, and while Chakrabarty is still at work perfecting his new “bug” — as researchers often refer to their microbes — the commercial wheels have already begun to turn. One possibility GE is considering is to package the bacteria in dry powder form, for application to oil slicks, or perhaps even to premix that powder with the straw that is customarily set down to soak up fresh spills. A GE promo display already includes a color transparency of two glass vials; one contains water, topped by a thick layer of grimy crude oil, the other — which started out the same way — contains only water slightly clouded by the millions of modified Pseudomonas that have made dinner of the unsightly petroleum.
Modified Pseudomonas culture is not going to show up in hardware stores next week. As Chakrabarty continues to make genetic modifications on his bug, General Electric is in the midst of dealing with the touchier legal questions posed by the creation of what is, essentially, a novel organism.
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One question, obviously, is environmental impact: What unforeseen disturbance might be wrought by dumping a genetically engineered supermicrobe into, say, an ocean-borne oil slick? Researcher Chakrabarty is fairly persuasive in minimizing those worries — although GE acknowledges that environmental testing of the new bug promises to be both required and complex.
How complex, even GE may not yet understand. The Environmental Protection Agency, upon whose shoulders the question will fall, is already no stranger to the field of microbiological oil-spill cleanup. For several years now, federal law has provided for the testing of these oil-eating microbes and EPA has, in preparing these guidelines, examined about five such products. The central requirement is that the oil-eating culture may not contain certain specific organisms that cause disease in human beings; fundamental, one might think, but also fairly critical, in view of the fact that just about half of the microbes that EPA originally reviewed would have failed the pathogenicity test outright.