Lessons from Asilomar; Ten Years after the Historic Conference on the Risks of Gene-Splicing Research, Scientists Look Back with a Mixture of Pride, Disappointment and Embarrassment

By Miller, Julie Ann | Science News, February 23, 1985 | Go to article overview

Lessons from Asilomar; Ten Years after the Historic Conference on the Risks of Gene-Splicing Research, Scientists Look Back with a Mixture of Pride, Disappointment and Embarrassment


Miller, Julie Ann, Science News


Among redwoods, Monterey pines and migrating monarch butterflies, 140 molecular biologists spent four long and intense days a decade ago. They had congregated in a building that was once a chapel to ponder and debate the ethics of using a technique that had recently burst upon their field. Today no one questions the power of recombinant DNA technology -- often called gene splicing -- that was then their focus. It alows the cutting, rearranging and reproduction (or cloning) of DNA, the genetic material.

Indeed, molecular biologists now jokingly refer to the pre-1975 days of their research as "B.C." or "before cloning," implying that biology before gene splicing was primitive and clumsy. The gene-slicing technique has been widely and enthusiastically embraced. Quite simply, it has revolutionized biology.

But what of the ethical concerns that dogged the early progress of the method? In new guises, they continue to hound the field today.

The meeting in February 1975 at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, Calif., was unique in the history of biology. The scientists convened not to describe their scientific advances but to assess potential risks of the new technique and to suggest limitations on its use in research. The foremost risk then imagined was that a novel microorganism might be created experimentally -- and released accidentally -- to cause an epidemic of cancer or some new and incurable disease. The way the scientists dealt with such hypothetical risks at that meeting continues to affect the conduct of biological reseach today.

The story behind the Asilomar conference actually begins in June 1973 at a closed scientific meeting in New Hampshire. There, participants described the development of a simple method for combining segments of DNA taken from unrelated species. In an unusual action, scientists attending that meeting voted to send a letter of concern to the National Academy of Sciences.

The brief letter, which was also published in SCIENCE, said that hybrid DNA molecules produced by the new technique might prove hazardous to laboratory workers and to the public. "Although no hazard has yet been established, prudence suggests that the potential hazard be seriously considered," the letter stated.

A second letter concerning such DNA research was published a year later in both SCIENCE and NATURE. Subsequently called the "moratorium letter," it was written by an academy-appointed committee of leading molecular biologists, including Paul Berg of Stanford University and James D. Watson of Cold Spring Harbor (N.Y.) Laboratory. This letter called for scientists around the world to "voluntarily defer" certain types of recombinant DNA experiments. It also recommended that an international gathering of scientists discuss ways to deal with the "potentially hazardous DNA molecules."

Most of the international meeting--the Asilomar conference--was devoted to describing progress in molecular biology research. "The first days were purely scientific showing-off, in other words a typical scientific meeting," recalls one participant. Only on the last morning did the focus shift to risks and how to deal with them.

The meeting's organizers had spent all the preceding night drafting new research guidelines. They recommended that the "moratorium" be lifted and replaced with a scale of special safety procedures corresponding to a scale of conjectural hazards associated with different types of recombinant DNA experiments. Some scientists, including Watson, objected to the statement.

But the majority at the meeting agreed, or at least did not vocally disagree, to the committee's recommendations. The report was eventually submitted to the National Academy and published in SCIENCE in June 1975. It became the basis of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines that have governed gene-splicing research throughout the United States since 1976. …

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