The public debate over the ethics of transgenic research has largely passed the physical sciences by. Materials scientists and researchers may have counted themselves lucky that they did not need to worry about such issues. They could be thankful their sphere of research would not be touched by the public outbursts of distrust that have greeted the few, and controlled, trials of transgenic species out of the lab and in the natural environment. Until now, that is.

In a recent edition of Science [(2002) 295, p.472–476; and see also Materials Today (2002) 5(3), p.6], US scientists describe the development of synthetic spider silk, using transgenic goats’ milk. The image that such a statement conjures up is one of some bizarre chimera, but of course this is not the case. There is no half-spider, half-goat spinning giant webs. The reality is much more prosaic, though none the less clever in scientific terms. The ability to take a natural material that occurs in abundance and adapt it such that it contains certain proteins, which can be used to synthesize silk is certainly revolutionary. But should we be concerned?

The answer, as is so often the case, is both yes and no. To start by putting transgenic technology in context. It is worth remembering the extremes to which what we would regard as ‘natural’ selective breeding has been stretched. (Just think of the Chihuahua and the Great Dane!) However, this work does mark something substantially different. Scientists can now introduce genetic material into one species from a completely different one. Not necessarily a worrisome prospect in its own right. Genetic material has very specific functions and will not necessarily bring with it any unsuspected side effects. All species also share a good deal of genetic material. However, it is true to say that no one can know what, if any, long-term implications such an act may have.

Now that these genetic techniques are possible, there is no turning back. What cannot, and should not, be shied away from is an informed and measured debate on the subject by both scientists and the ‘lay’ public. Since these issues are clearly of concern to the general public, scientists cannot shirk their duty to address these worries and explain the issues. We, because of our own enormous consumption, have limited resources at our disposal. There are hard decisions ahead — we may have to embrace such revolutionary concepts as transgenic species to provide the resources and environment that we need or give up a quality of life to which we have become accustomed. What is clear now is that this is not just a debate for the biologists, all scientists have a part to play.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)05301-4