NSF Sponsored Teaching Program


A Play in Four Acts

by Bob Goldberg, Kathy McElroy, & Esther Hsu

Honors Collegium 70A

Genetic Engineering in Medicine, Agriculture, and the Law

Discussion - Week 3


Mayor -- Jeff Watson
City Council Esther Hsu (President)
  Gina Kraft
  Jimmy Khouzam
BACTGEN President Mai Pham
BACTGEN President's Asst. Esther Hsu
BACTGEN Scientists Anthony Aleta
  Jessica Cabalza
  Dustin Osborn
Green Peace Activist -- Gina Borugian
  Chris Diaz
No Bug Coalition Activist -- Mike Evans
  Katie Hauck
EPA Agent -- Don Nguyen
Pismo Beach Gazette Reporter -- Erica Espinoza
Local Church Minister -- Erisa Preston
Townspeople -- Kara Takahashi (Homeowner's Association President)
  Eric Forister (Hot Dog Vendor)
  Esther Hsu (Concerned Citizen)


On the morning of January 28, 2000, the oil tanker Gasco Goldberg ran aground just off the coast of Pismo Beach, California. Within hours, BACTGEN, a "leading" biotechnology company specializing in developing genetically superior bacteria came forward to offer one of its genetically modified bacteria to help clean up the spill. The bacteria, designated by the product name OILEATERTM, was created by introducing several genes that allowed the engineered bacteria to take up, metabolize, and use oil as its primary energy source. BACTGEN estimates that the use of this bacteria will clean up the spill within a week, and will save billions of dollars in manpower, clean-up expenses, and lost tourism income.

BACTGEN is attempting to get approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) so that OILEATER will be recognized as the primary tool to clear oil spills in the US. EPA regulations require BACTGEN to assess the effectiveness of OILEATER in cleaning up a large-scale spill in the field and to assemble an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the effect of OILEATER on the immediate and surrounding environment. The EPA also requires BACTGEN to include in the EIR the effect, if any, that OILEATER has on humans, animals, and naturally occurring bacteria in a 100 mile radius of the testing site.

In town, a citizen's group called "Pismo Beach Protectorate" organized "A March to Save Pismo Beach," a demonstration against Gasco and the Pismo Beach oil spill. Another citizen's group, the " No Bug Coalition" organized a separate demonstration against BACTGEN and the release of the genetically-engineered OILEATER into the environment. Many townspeople came to these demonstrations, including the Homeowner's Association President and a neighborhood hot dog vendor, who are both opposed the release of bacteria in their hometown. The Mayor of the town is conspicuously absent from these demonstrations. In an effort to save the town's tourism industry, and his own small chain of beachfront hotels, he immediately approved BACTGEN's offer to release OILEATER into the water.


(5 minutes )

Cast -- Pismo Beach Gazette Reporter

City Council President


Events -- Reporter just found out that OILEATER was to be released onto the oil spill the following day per the Mayor's orders. Reporter does not have all the details but calls the City Council President to report the Mayor's decision. Shocked by the fact that she was not consulted about this civic matter, the City Council President and the Reporter visit the Mayor at City Hall. Here, the Mayor explains his reasoning for accepting BACTGEN's offer and the City Council President demands a Town Hall meeting to discuss the issues. They call the President of BACTGEN to arrange the meeting.

Concept Questions:

1.      What do you know about the OILEATER bacteria at this time? What is the evidence that it is safe to release into the environment?

2.      What is the benefit of releasing OILEATER? What are the economic implications of using the bacteria at this time? What are the economic implications of waiting before using this technology?

3.      What is the conventional way of cleaning up an oil spill? How much time and manpower does this cleanup method require?

4.      What information was factored into the decision to release OILEATER? Is this reasoning sound? What factors should be discussed when approaching a new technology?

5.      Who has the authority to make a decision about a biotechnology issue? Who has the authority to make a decision on a biotechnology issue in the event of an emergency? What should be discussed before such a decision is made?

6.      Should a town meeting be called? What should be discussed in a town hall meeting about this issue? Who should speak at the town hall meeting?

7.      What information is necessary to make an informed decision about the use of OILEATER on the Pismo Beach oil spill?



(15 minutes)

Cast -- BACTGEN Scientists

BACTGEN President

BACTGEN President's Assistant

Events -- In preparation for the Pismo Beach Town Hall Meeting, the President of BACTGEN calls an emergency meeting so that she may be briefed on the science behind OILEATER. Scientists outline the experimental details to the President. They discuss how OILEATER was created, how it works, and how it was tested in the laboratory lake. After hearing all of the scientific background, the BACTGEN President discusses the importance of the release to the company's survival and what they will do if the community reacts negatively or the City Council does not allow the experiment to proceed. Act II closes with the BACTGEN president and scientists leaving for the Town Hall Meeting.

Concept Questions:

1.      How much scientific background information is necessary to make an informed decision on a biotechnology issue? Can an informed decision be made without first understanding the science?

2.      How was OILEATER created? How does OILEATER "eat" oil? How does OILEATER absorb oil? How is the absorbed oil metabolized? What type of biological molecule carries out these functions in the OILEATER bacteria?

3.      What modifications must be made to a bacteria cell in order for it to be able to absorb and metabolize oil?

4.      Where in the world do you find bacteria that uses oil as an energy source? Why can't you just transplant these bacteria to the California coast to use on oil slicks?

5.      What type of bacteria is OILEATER created from? What is the natural habitat of these bacteria?

6.      What genes must be transferred into these bacteria to allow it to absorb and metabolize?

7.      How do you determine which genes are involved in absorption and metabolism of oil?

8.      How were genes inserted and propagated in a bacterial cell? How are the genes manipulated so that they may be expressed in OILEATER?

9.      How are the activities of these genes regulated in OILEATER? Is there a master switch which turns on all of these genes? What substance regulates the master switch?

10.  What experiments where performed to determine whether OILEATER eats oil? What restrictions were placed on testing of this sort? How do the experiments performed by the lab to test OILEATER efficacy differ from the large-scale application of these bacteria on an oil spill?

11.  What experimental tests have been conducted in the lab to demonstrate the safety of releasing OILEATER in the environment?



(15 minutes)

Cast - Pismo Beach Protectorate Activists

No Bug Coalition Activists

Townspeople & Concerned Citizens

Local Church Minister

Pismo Beach Gazette Reporter

Events - While demonstrating in the Pismo Beach area, activists from the two rival environmental groups meet in the street. The Pismo Beach Protectorate activists, demonstrating against Gasco and the oil spill, argue that the oil spill should be cleaned up quickly by the bacteria, provided that BACTGEN can assure them of the environmental safety of the procedure. The No Bug Coalition activists, on the other hand, are demonstrating against the genetically-engineered bacteria themselves, and think that the oil spill should be cleaned up "the old fashioned way" (by scrubbing the rocks and birds free of oil) because the addition of modified bacteria into the environment isn't natural. The two groups launch into a debate in the middle of the street, arguing the pros and cons of each method of cleaning up the oil. Suddenly, the Pismo Beach Gazette Reporter appears at the scene, and tells the group about the Mayor's decision. The townspeople, outraged at the fact that they had not been consulted for their opinion, storm off to the Town Meeting. The activists follow.

Concept Questions:

1.      How would the oil spill in the Pismo Beach area affect the environment? What potential risks are involved in the release of OILEATER into the ocean near Pismo Beach?

2.      How would the oil spill affect the lives of the townspeople (i.e. the hot dog venders and the residents)? How would the townspeople feel about tons of bacteria released in their neighborhood? How would the townspeople feel about the genetic engineered bacteria released in the neighborhood?

3.      What potential risks do the townspeople have to be in contact and "eating" the genetic engineered bacteria for a period of time?

4.      What would be the concerns that the townspeople have after the oil spill has been cleaned up by OILEATER? Where will the OILEATER bacteria go after the oil spill has been cleaned up?

5.      How would the Pismo Beach Protectorate activists feel about the oil spill in the ocean? Would the Pismo Beach Protectorate prefer that the oil spill be cleaned up in a slower, more conventional way, or as quickly as possible? What is the environmental benefit of cleaning up the spill quickly?

6.      What are the concerns that the Pismo Beach Protectorate activists have about using releasing genetically engineered bacteria in the environment? What evidence do they need to see before they would approve the use of OILEATER?

7.      How would the No Bug Coalition activists feel about the oil spill in the Pismo Beach? What methods can the No Bug Coalition activists come up with to clean up the ocean? How long and how many manpower would it take to clean up the oil spill?

8.      How would the No Bug Coalition activists feel about the genetic engineered bacteria released in the environment? How would the No Bug Coalition activists feel about the ecosystem after the release tons of OILEATER in the environment?

9.      What moral or religious issues are brought up by the use of genetically engineered bacteria to clean up this ecological disaster? Are genetically engineered bacteria "natural?"

10.  Are living organisms created by man inherently different from organisms found in nature? Do gentically modified organisms process their food differently? Are they made of different types of cells? Do they contain different types of genetic material?

11.  What would the townspeople, Pismo Beach Protectorate activists and the No Bug Coalition activists react after knowing the mayor ordered the release of OILEATER in their neighborhood without consulting their opinions?


(60 minutes)

Cast - All

Events - City Council President calls the Town Hall Meeting to order, and recounts the events of the last few hours. The council then hears the testimony of witnesses that address legal, environmental, moral, and scientific issues of the proposed test. Risks and benefits are discussed, and concern is raised about "checkbook " politics. The Council and Mayor question the witnesses. Testimony is heard from the following people, in order of appearance:

BACTGEN President: Talk about the benefits of this technology and its application to the Pismo Beach oil spill.

BACTGEN Scientists: Discuss the construction of the OILEATER bacteria, and how the bacteria "eats" oil. Outline the way in which the bacteria was tested to prove its efficacy. Describe the potential problems which may come up as a result of releasing OILEATER into the environment, including horizontal gene transfer methods and the affects of the addition of OILEATER on the environmental bacteria population.

EPA Representative: Questions the testing methods used by the BACTGEN corporation, and the lack of data on the effect of OILEATER on the environment. Discusses the role of the EPA in ensuring the safety of OILEATER, and the environmental safety standards that the bacteria must meet in order to be approved.

City Council hears testimony of townspeople. BACTGEN Scientists and EPA Representative respond to any questions levied by the townspeople. Townspeople testify in following order:

President of Pismo Beach Homeowner's Association: Questions the safety of releasing huge amounts of bacteria in a residential community. Demands to know the nature of the bacteria, and how it will affect the people and homeowners of Pismo Beach.

Local Hot Dog Vendor: Questions whether the genetically modified bacteria might eat his hotdogs and run him out of business. Questions the safety of releasing genetically-modified bacteria near his beachfront hot dog stand, where it may land on his hot dogs and be eaten by a customer. Explains how any perceived risk may lead to his financial ruin. Demands that the city of Pismo Beach compensate him for any loss of business incurred by the presence of OILEATER.

Local Church Minister: Questions the morality of genetically modifying organisms found in nature. Asks that the town of Pismo Beach not support this "unnatural" biotechnology.

No Bug Coalition Activists: Question the ecological implications of introducing genetically modified bacteria into the environment. Demand that BACTGEN Scientists discuss the ecological risks of this work. Request that the use of this technology be denied, and that mobilization of a rock-scrubbing campaign begin immediately.

Pismo Beach Protectorate Activists: Ask what steps have been taken to mitigate the potential risks of this technology. Reject the time-consuming cleanup method suggested by the No Bug Coalition in favor of using OILEATER, provided that it has been proved to be safe for the environment.

City Council and Mayor weigh the issues, and construct a list of costs vs. benefits regarding the use of the bacteria, with the help of the townspeople, scientists, and activists. A vote is called. (A tied vote is decided by the Mayor)

Pismo Beach Gazette Reporter interviews Council, Scientists, Clergy, etc. on their responses to the vote.



Mayor - Gabe Brakin
City Council - Kathy McElroy(President)
Rod Clifton
Katherine Villareal
BACTGEN President - Julia Trankiem
BACTGEN President's Asst - Kathy McElroy
BACTGEN Scientists - Aycha Erbilgin
  Marcus Frampton
  Maksim Malymygin
PB Protectorate Activists - Buzz Reynolds
  Samantha Matamoros
No Bug Coalition Activists - Rebecca Sharkansky
  Jon Dotan
EPA Agent - Mike Ouyang
Pismo Beach Gazette Reporter - Sara Hall
Local Church Minister - Elena Gaft
Townspeople - Zach Jarvinen(Homeowner's Association President)
  Jon Dotan(Hot Dog Vendor)
  Kathy McElroy(Concerned Citizen)