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Genetics and the future of Europe

Enrica Galli

Enrica Galli Università degli Studi, Milan (IT)
"Micro-organisms are our friends: they are smarter, wiser and more energetic than chemists and engineers."

Mixed feelings

 

  • Today, Europeans feel out of their depth when it comes to genetics research. All genetics? Certainly not. When molecular genetics provides tools to serve the environment - such as tools for eliminating pollution - it receives widespread support. This shows that the public can understand that "micro-organismes are our friends: they are smarter, wiser and more energetic than chemists and engineers"(1). "We have to make them aware of the extraordinary microbial diversity of the biosphere, where the bulk of unknown life forms enzymes and bioactive molecules are awaiting us to be discovered and applied for human benefit."(2)

  • Medical genetics elicits a more ambiguous response: on the one hand shines the hope of fighting certain diseases, while on the other hand looms the "spectre of eugenics"(3). Yet European opinion is above all hostile to crop genetics, and especially to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods. This mistrust is not totally rational: "When people refuse chocolate because the label mentions an infinitesimal GMO content, do they even think twice about the risk that traditional chocolate might contain extremely dangerous mycotoxins?"(4) Yet it is not totally irrational, either: "Let us acknowledge that currently a purely scientific risk assessment is impossible."(5)

  • Europe will not be able to exploit fully the promise of genetic engineering unless it succeeds in dealing with these concerns and manages to integrate them into a coherent whole, despite their somewhat contradictory nature.

(1) Enrica Galli, UniversitÓ degli Studi, Milano (IT)
(2) Victor de Lorenzo, Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia (ES)
(3) Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, (DE)
(4) Jaroslav Drobick, Biotrend association (CZ)
(5) Sue Mayer, Genewatch, Buxton, (UK)

     
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