It could have been a scene out of a Steven Spielberg movie: Workers, wearing surgical masks, yellow boots and white gowns, gathered at a small field in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.
On cue, they dipped sewing needles into a solution teeming with bacteria and began pricking 4,000 knee-high stalks of corn. A series of protective fences, earthen mounds and a strip of barren land isolated the corn patch.
That first field test of a new, genetically engineered pesticide by Crop Genetics International took place in 1988. The experiment -- one of the first deliberate releases into nature of a genetically altered being -- was conducted under intense public scrutiny at a Beltsville test plot of the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Since then, the Hanover, Md., company has conducted dozens of similar tests in several states with little public attention. In fact, much of the concern about outdoor biotechnology experiments seems to have abated -- to the delight of industry officials who think there is enough oversight already.
"In some cases we think some aspects of it are overregulated," says Jeff Beddow, with the Industrial Biotechnology Association, a trade group. "There is no reason to think biotechnology presents any greater danger than any other industry."
But many environmentalists still worry about regulations that they perceived as inadequate in 1988 and that have undergone few meaningful changes since.
"We think the federal government has been remiss. . . . The things [companies] can do now under the law are scary," says Margaret Mellon, director of biotechnology policy for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the few groups that actively track the impact of biotechnology on the environment.
At its most basic level, biotechnology is the manipulation of living organisms for useful purposes -- from breeding roses to splicing the genes of research mice. Often this means altering the genetic structure at the cellular level so a microorganism or other living thing will acquire new traits.
This ranges from having bacteria act as a natural pesticide, as in the case of Crop Genetics International, to medical applications such as the production of life-saving drugs.
Unlike those who oppose any genetic engineering, Mellon says, her group sees benefits to biotechnology, such as less reliance on chemical pesticides. The federation did not oppose the Crop Genetics test, though Mellon says the best defense against corn borers is simply rotating crops in the fields.
But, she says, a comprehensive effort is needed to strengthen regulations largely written to govern chemical and other "conventional" threats.
She advocates a comprehensive federal law administered by a single agency and covering the release of any organism.
Currently, different elements of biotechnology are regulated by a dozen agencies.
For example, laboratory work, if performed with federal money, must meet guidelines established by the National Institutes of Health. Field tests are watched by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture Department. Genetically engineered drugs must be tested under the supervision of the Food and Drug Administration.
"This odd patchwork of oversight is inefficient and does not protect the environment," Mellon says.
Also, some organisms and certain kinds of releases are unregulated, she says.
Many companies have voluntarily subjected their experiments to federal scrutiny, as a means of assuring consumer acceptance of the product, according to Mellon.
"They are not required in most cases to come before the federal government. . . . I don't think it's responsible of the country to rely on good will or product acceptance to have companies do the right thing," she says.
"Genetic engineering is not going to turn every plant into the tomato that ate Pittsburgh. In general, research is safe and I don't see a reason for people to be unduly concerned.
"The problem is when you really get on a roll and have thousands of releases," Mellon says.
Those days are fast-approaching as the industry matures. Mellon and other environmentalists say the time to strengthen the regulations is now, before an accident occurs.
"If history has taught us anything, it is that industry has to be regulated. If Maryland wants to be a biotech center, it better have the regulations in place before hand," says Andrew Kimbrell, with the Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington watchdog group led by Jeremy Rifkin and known for its frequent criticisms of biotechnology.
Among other things, there ought to be "right-to-know" laws that require a community to be informed about what work is being done, Kimbrell says.
But the emphasis in Congress seems to be on efforts to improve the competitive position of an industry many view as America's technological ace in the hole. And Vice President Dan Quayle's council on competitiveness recently concluded that there is no need for more regulation of the industry.