Four University of Utah research scientists have joined 500 colleagues around the nation in pledging not to conduct biological investigations for the military.

Sponsored by the Committee for Responsible Genetics, the pledge asserts that research into biological warfare could lead to a "biological arms race," and its signatories include Nobel Laureates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities.Cedric I. Davern, a University of Utah professor of biology and one of the four Utah signers, said defense efforts will ultimately require working with genetically engineered organisms capable of causing incurable illnesses.

And he contends that an Army plan to expand its biological warfare research program at Dugway Proving Ground in western Utah poses the risk that genetically altered organisms could escape and infect the population, or lead to experimentation on humans.

Davern said that human experiments would pose monumental legal and ethical problems for the U.S. Army.

"Nobody could tell the subjects what the danger is. Because it's a new organism there's no way to obtain informed consent. There's no way to tell the subject what (effects) he's likely to run into," said the U. biologist.

Federal statutes require informed consent be attained before experimenting on human subjects.

Joining Davern as a sponsor of the pledge was U. biologist Naomi Franklin, an expert in the regulation of viral infections. Other U. signatories include Sherwood Casjens, an associate professor in molecular biology, and David Thaler, a researcher in genetics.

Davern said the Army hasn't given enough consideration to the way other nations might react to U.S. biological defense research.

"If we start to manufacture candidates for germ warfare under the rubric of threat-assessment studies, it's exactly what we'd be doing if we were to develop threat agents to use on an enemy," he said. "It could be interpreted as a potentially offensive act."

The research program conducted by the Army entails research at military facilities and more than 100 universities, research institutes and corporations that have received research grants and contracts.

Among them are Utah State University and Brigham Young University. Dugway, about 70 miles west of Salt Lake City, is one of three main military facilities involved in the program.