PERHAPS YOU HAVE seen the Flavr Savr tomato in stores this summer, the country's first major genetically engineered produce to hit the market. Or perhaps you noticed people from the Pure Food Campaign demonstrating against such food outside theaters showing Jurassic Park, this summer's blockbuster movie about a genetically engineered nightmare. The movie and the tomato have corralled public attention as never before regarding the genetic frontiers being pushed by science and the biotech industry.
Will this new technology feed the world, reduce pesticide use, save energy, improve nutrition? Will we be able to grow a plastic substitute and raise naturally decaffeinated coffee? Or will gene splicing, in the end, encourage new breeds of superbugs and superweeds, produce vegetables that look beautiful and are easy to process but that lack nutrients, or cause virulent new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria?
Crossbreeding and genetic manipulation have been used for centuries to produce new plants such as hybrid corn, exotically colored roses, yellow-meated watermelon, and tangelos. But it takes years to achieve results. Recombinant DNA technology--replacing a specific segment of DNA that controls a certain characteristic of an organism with another characteristic--is a more precise way of doing the same thing more quickly.
The Flavr Savr tomato, developed by the California biotech company Calgene Inc., had the swatch of its DNA responsible for rotting replaced by a mirror image swatch, rendering that function inactive. The tomato can stay on the vine about five days longer, allowing for more of a vine-ripened flavor. In addition, these tomatoes can be shipped without refrigeration, and they last longer on grocery store shelves. Not a bad improvement.