The death a week ago of a genetics researcher at the University of Chicago is a reminder of the dangers of genetic engineering. The researcher died after becoming infected with a supposedly harmless strain of the plague bacteria that he had been studying. The laboratory bacteria strain is said to have the plague’s harmful components removed, and did not cause plague symptoms in the researcher, but produced a highly active infection that health officials say is the only plausible explanation for his death.
In truth, whenever scientists alter the genes of an organism, no one really knows what will happen as a result. The modified plague bacteria apparently created a new fatal disease about which very little is known at this point. Rules and practices are thought to be sufficient to keep potentially virulent genetically modified organisms from escaping the laboratory, yet no one really knows that for sure. This case demonstrates that the standard precautions are not always enough, and suggests that the extreme precautions researchers often take with modified genetic material and genetically modified organisms are worth the extra trouble.