FWD: Article on Microbiology vs. Molecular Genetics

Martin Latterich micro at mendel.berkeley.edu
Wed Jul 6 09:24:17 EST 1994


I posted this article for Ewen McPherson. Please direct all
correspondence to the newsgroup or to the author's address
(E.F.Mcpherson at uel.ac.uk).
----

Greetings Bionet.microbiology. It is, as has been 
said, great to see a specific newsgroup for microbiologists. I was 
interested in the recent comments on
microbiology vs molecular genetics (What do we call our department?)


I assume that most people here will have seen the Journal of General
Microbiology (Now a.k.a. Microbiology) at some point in their careers ?
Personally speaking, I'm getting increasingy annoyed with it. I've just

reached up to look at May's edition, and a quick flick through reveals
that
out of 32 papers, 15 are concerned with genetics and molecular biology.

Where have all the microbiologists gone ? I've been studying, and more
recently teachning microbiology in one form or another for about 10
years 
now, and I've seen the science of microbiology change from being the
study
of small organisms and their ecology to being a factory for churning
out
gene sequences, and even my recent class of final year students
commented
on this when I gave them a course on Taxonomy and systematics. OK, so
for our
first talk-generating thread, I'm suggesting this as a Title;- Running
before
we can walk.

And here's the contentious statement to set fire to. I consider myself
to be an environme [ 
an environmental microbiologist, and one of the things that seems to be
generating a bit of talk amongst my students is the recent planned
releases
of Genetically Engineered Micro-Organisms. And they , without
prompting, came
up with exactly the same sort of fears that I had myself;- That we know
too
little about the ecology of organisms that are being released into the
environment to actually consider releasing genes that may have
deleterious
effects on other organisms.

My point is, therefore, are we running before we can walk. It's all
fine and
well for a biochemist to merrily go sequencing genes through their nice
and expensive sequencers and then saying.. "OK, we think it's
responsible
for THIS, and we can clone it and put it in THIS organism which our
microcosm
tests (invariably conducted in sterile matrices) says will survive in
the
environment, it'll then do THIS and we'll all make lots of money
patenting the ide
idea."

Life, as we all know, isn't a nice sterile microcosm matrix. Soil is
a flaming aggressive environment and I feel that without detailed study
of the ecology of the soil microbial biomass we're risking it by
releasing
"unnatural" gene sequences into the environment because we simply don't
know what's going to happen to them once they're out there, what
organism
may incorporate them, what mutations may occur in that incorporation
and how
the hell we do actually deal with it if anything goes wrong.

OK, so put a suicide gene in the sequence. Great, that convinces the
great
and the good who sit on the various ethical committees who have to have
explained to them the difference between fungi and bacteria. But, as we
have
seen recently (i.e. BSE from prions), The organism itself may not
necessarily
have to be alive to still remain a threat in one form or another (See
also
Gruinard Island, Curses from Egyptian tombs etc).DNA can and does
remain free
in the soil, and may concieveably be "reconverted" to viability by
incorporation in another organism.

Here's another thought. Synergism. The sum of the parts is greater than
the 
sum of the whole. I will freely confess that I do not keep up with the
latest
developments in genetic microbiology. Has anybody considered the
possibility
of synergistic effects of an introduced gene not only with the genes of
the
host organism but of whatever else is out there.

As somebody about to take the great step from Student to Teacher on a
full
time basis, swimming around the edges of the Great Iron Rice Bowl of
the
Granting Bodies from whence all support cometh, It seems to 
me,perhaps rather cynically, that all you have to do to get your 
proposal accepted, particularly by one of the US granting bodies is to 
put in Three Buzz-phrases 

1/Genetic Engineering
2/Possible Economic Advantage
3/Novel Technique (and/or Polymerase Chain Reaction)

So, the conclusion;- Too much emphasis is being placed on the genetic
structures of organisms and the sequencing of genes searching for 2./
above without consideration for the possible impact on the ecology of
ecosystems. Let's put a bit of empahsis into some good basic microbial
ecology and get at least a better understanding of what's going on out
there before we start trying to interefere with it.

Microbiology for the Microbiologists;- 
Genetics for the Biochemists;-
Microbial Genetics after Microbial Ecology;-
More Money for Microbial Ecology (and microbial ecologists !;-} )


OK, Let's have it.....


Ewen McPherson,
University of East London



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