We all can breathe a little more easily, now that a frightening bioterror threat has been neutralized. No — the FBI still hasn’t caught that anthrax mailer who caused torturous deaths and grave illnesses back in 2001. But it has nabbed Professor Steven Kurtz.
Materials confiscated in May from Kurtz’s home and from a Buffalo museum exhibit by his group, the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), included equipment for DNA analysis and cultures of three bacterial species: Escherichia coli, Bacillus globigii, and Serratia marcescens. Kurtz, a professor at the University of Buffalo, was indicted by a grand jury on June 29 for fraudulent acquisition of bacterial cultures. He and his colleague Robert Ferrell, who obtained the cultures for him, face 20 years in prison, if convicted.
Some have taken comfort in the fact that the bacterial species Kurtz had in his home are mostly harmless to humans, although S. marcescens can sometimes cause infections. They’re the types of bacteria commonly used in teaching labs. (See this catalog, in which E. coli and S. marcescens are marked with asterisks, indicating that they are shipped to high-school teachers.) Some of them are sitting on your skin or in your gut right now.
But what assurance do we have that these organisms are really on our side in the War on Terror? None! And if they aren’t with us, they must be with the terrorists.
For decades, scientists have worked hard to make our homeland safe and sterile for humans and a few other species of proven loyalty, like bread yeast and lawn grasses. Research has given us sanitizing hand soap, germicidal kitchen wipes, and antibacterial dishwashing liquid. But when groups like CAE knowingly undermine respect for science and promote a devil-may-care attitude toward bacteria, you can bet that contamination will start turning up everywhere: moldy bread in the refrigerator, homemade wine souring in the basement, a back yard full of compost, a front yard full of dandelions. Indifference toward bioterrorism can’t be far behind.
The War on Germs and Bugs shares with War on Terror some features that sorely test our resolve. For one thing, it’s a classic "asymmetrical conflict", in which the side with the greatest firepower — that’s us — finds itself at a distinct disadvantage. Furthermore, we’re vulnerable to "blowback", when apparent solutions turn around and hurt us. Finally, it’s often difficult to distinguish enemy species from "friendlies", and that forces us to treat them all as targets. We must never let our guard down in either of these Wars.
But the danger posed by Kurtz and his shadowy organization goes far beyond their flirtation with non-aligned organisms. They are using those bacterial cultures and other accoutrements of research as part of a larger scheme to drain our homeland’s very lifeblood: economic growth. The CAE’s relentless disparagement of biotechnology, in particular, could put at risk the profits of some of our most highly respected corporations.
You see, an important role of science in our homeland is to help us recognize and reject practices that merely perform a useful function, in favor of those that actually generate a profit. For example, long-established plant and animal breeding methods are perfectly sufficient for developing useful varieties, hybrids, and breeds for farmers. But to support a modern, transnational corporation, biotechnology is required. The CAE apparently doesn’t understand that.
The War on Germs and Bugs brings us many economic benefits. Consider allergies. Research shows that our success in sanitizing our environment — reducing exposure to soil, dust, mudpuddles, and the microbes they harbor — may have messed up our children’s immune systems, fostering allergies. Furthermore, the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems can be damaged by chemicals that keep our lawns and agricultural fields hygenic. So while our economy benefits from the sale of pesticides, antibacterial cleansers, antibiotics, air conditioners, and bottled water, there’s a bonus: a rising incidence of allergies, asthma, behavioral disorders, and low sperm counts, all of which boost the sale of pharmaceuticals.
Think about the unthinkable alternative: an unproductive economy in which adults are occupied with creating pseudo-scientific art exhibitions or hoeing their vegetable gardens, kids are making mudpies and skipping baths, and everyone’s drinking water out of the tap. Now there’s a recipe for economic stagnation.
The government has a duty to crack down on groups like CAE, who fiddle around with microbes, thumb their noses at recognized authorities and experts, and mock capitalism. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then it’s to hell with the Constitution!
STAN COX is a crop geneticist in Salina, Kansas, and his wife Priti Cox is an artist. They never collaborate, for fear of the potentially catastrophic consequences. He can be reached at: email@example.com