Illegal action? A researcher obtaining DNA at a maize research lab, CIMMYT, outside Mexico City.

Do Research, Do Time?

Imprison leading scientists for doing research? That could be the effect of a sweeping new law in Mexico that could block researchers from working with any transgenic organisms, even in the lab. Although Parliament passed the law in February, many of the nation's molecular biologists are just now learning of it, and they are up in arms.

The law, perhaps the world's most sweeping biotech regulation, is part of a larger initiative to reform biosafety rules in Mexico. Most of the law deals with relatively uncontroversial matters: regulating the disposal of hazardous wastes, controlling toxic chemicals in urban areas, and blocking the introduction of exotic species. But the little-noted Article 420 of the new law imposes an up to 9-year prison sentence on anyone who, "in violation of the established applicable norms, imports, exports, traffics, transports, stores or releases into the environment any genetically modified organism that changes or can change negatively the components, structure, or function of natural ecosystems." According to Article 420, "genetically modified organism" means "any organism with a new combination of genetic material that has been created by the techniques of biotechnology."

Although Article 420 is in effect, it is not yet being enforced, because the relevant "established applicable norms" do not exist. SEMARNAT, Mexico's environment ministry, has told researchers that it is developing the "norms," which will be published in draft form, probably next month, for a 60-day comment period. Scientists inside and outside SEMARNAT are demanding that the norms be used to rein in the law.

But researchers in Mexico are far from complacent. "Nobody is sure how the law will affect them, nor how it will be enforced," says one geneticist, who asked for anonymity because of the "delicate" situation. "It is very difficult to envision that the Mexican government is going to send some of its best scientists to jail for following what were the laws before this latest act was passed." But that, this researcher said, might end up being the case.

Related site
Text of new biosafety law (in Spanish)