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SCIENTISTS ARE PLAYING WITH FIRE

Have we learned nothing from "Jurassic Park"? Have we failed to grasp the apocalyptic horrors of "Outbreak" and "12 Monkeys"? Do two centuries of mad-scientist cautionary tales . . . mean nothing these days?

Ahem. Forgive us that brief bout of pop-culture hysteria, but there is good reason to question the wisdom of the science project being undertaken by the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives -- with the help of a $3 million federal grant! -- to create a new life-form in a laboratory.

Even setting aside the fact that the team will be trying to transform a bacterium that causes a painful urinary infection, the whole concept is creepy.

Successfully replacing the chromosomes of Mycoplasma genitalium with lab-made DNA to develop a new kind of microbe -- in this case, with the express purpose of making hydrogen for fuel cells or absorbing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide -- certainly would be a major scientific accomplishment. But it also would spawn serious safety and ethical concerns. . . .

It's no doubt true, as microbiologist Clyde Hutchinson says, that M. genitalium "is very fragile and really can't live outside the laboratory." But once these scientists complete their work, it won't be M. genitalium anymore, will it?

And geneticist Craig Venter, the project's leader, admits that in the wrong hands, the group's work could be used to create new kinds of bio-weapons. . . .

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