Skip to main content

Biomedical Politics (1991) / Chapter Skim
Currently Skimming:

Asilomar and Recombinant DNA: The End of the Beginning
Pages 258-307

The Chapter Skim interface presents what we've algorithmically identified as the most significant single chunk of text within every page in the chapter.
Select key terms on the right to highlight them within pages of the chapter.


From page 258...
... The setting was the chapel of a conference center in the peaceful California coastal town of Pacific Grove. The cast included about 150 molecular biologists from some of the world's premier laboratories, and the final scene showed an agreement being struck among Donald S
From page 259...
... Can we be sure that such a threat to such a sensitive relationship will not happen again? The objective ofthis essay is to reconstruct, from an abundant record,2 the story of the climactic event of the first act, the Asilomar conference of 1975.
From page 260...
... With dazzling deduction and splendid showmanship, the helical form and base-pairing structure of DNA were unveiled by James Watson and Francis Crick in Cambridge in 1953.5 The carefully offhand postscript in their report of discovery, noting how this structure might explain the replication of the gene, stimulated resurgence of the crusade to briny beck the answers to fundamental questions of living matter and the evolution of the species. Such a dramatic expansion of the scientific horizon was perfectly timed to the swelling of the ranks of biomedical researchers.
From page 261...
... The birth and early growth of the discipline now centering on genetics were hastened and greatly enlivened by the participation of scientists, many of them British or European, who were attracted to biology from such disciplines as mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Their presence among the leaders on the new frontier helped lend elan and eminence to the cadre of young scientists calling themselves molecular biologists.7 Fruit Flies, Corn, and Molds The techniques available to get at the gene, however, were crude and cumbersome, and it took some time for the field to mature.
From page 262...
... The former are termed prokaryotes because they have no cellular nucleus and the chromosomes are free in the cell juice, or cytoplasm. In bacteria some of these genes are in circular DNA molecules, or plasmids, which are often exceptionally mobile and can transfer genes to other bacteria.
From page 263...
... The potential hazards of infections from bacteria and viruses did not retard early work in molecular biology. By the second decade after the transforming principle had been enunciated, the laboratories of virologists and microbiologists had been thoroughly infiltrated by biochemists, geneticists, and cell and molecular biologists.
From page 264...
... This idea led to an understanding of repression and induction of gene expression.~4 By far the largest number of molecular biologists were working in the United States in laboratories extending from Boston and Cold Spring Harbor in New York to southern California. NIH was a major source of support, and NIH grants also went to European laboratories, including those of Jacob and Monod.
From page 265...
... The HCBSC met fairly regularly, usually in Washington, D.C., and its membership included several faculty members from Stanford University.~5 It was at Stanford in the early 1970s that experimentation in molecular biology would first lead to serious controversy. SETTING THE STAGE: THE EXPERIMENT AND ITS EFFECTS In the late 1960s, Paul Berg, professor of biochemistry at Stanford, took sabbatical leave to work in the laboratory of virologist Renato Dulbecco at the Salk Institute.
From page 266...
... John Lear opens his book with a full-stop rendition of the outcome of her revelation: "On the afternoon of Monday, June 28, 1971, Robert Pollack, a 31-year-old microbiologist on the research staff of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island, made a telephone call that would fundamentally change the relationship of American science to the society that sheltered it." Pollack's call was to Paul Berg and it did not catch Berg completely by surprise, for Mertz had already relayed to him some of her instructor's criticisms. Pollack told Berg in effect that he should "put genes into a phage that doesn't grow in a bug that grows in your gut," and reminded him that SV40 is a small-animal tumor virus that transforms human cells in culture and makes them look like tumor cells.
From page 267...
... Lewis had never met and did not recognize Watson, who had recently become director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Without introduction, Watson expressed his displeasure that Lewis had failed to share samples of the viruses with Cold Spring Harbor and proceeded to enumerate ways by which he could force Lewis to provide them.
From page 268...
... The "First" Asilomar Conference In 1972 the controversy over recombinant DNA was still well contained within the community of molecular biologists, and there had been no organized attempt to deal with the major single source of anxiety the DNA of cancer viruses. Paul Berg, however, refused to let the matter drop.
From page 269...
... One evening of the workshop was devoted to "an open discussion of the use of restriction endonuclease to construct genetic hybrids between DNA molecules .
From page 270...
... In the early 1970s, the biomedical community began to experience concern about increasing tension in the vital public-science connection.29 THE 1973 GORDON CONFERENCE ON NUCLEIC ACIDS The most effective, continuous self-monitoring of the scientific tribes derives from regular gatherings of its warriors and elders to examine
From page 271...
... Krimsky, however, cites chairperson Maxine Singer, who recalled how Boyer had shared with the conferees information about the capabilities of the restriction enzyme EcoRI to splice DNAs of different origin and how two plasmids bearing genes specifying resistance to two different antibiotics had been joined.30 It was after Boyer's comments that someone loudly sounded the excited comment, "Now we can combine any DNA." Other reactions to this hint that biology was approaching something akin to the nuclear physicists' chilling arrival at "critical mass" were delayed until late afternoon, when two researchers at the Cambridge Molecular Biology Laboratory, Ed Tiff and Paul Sedat, sought out the two conference chairpersons, Maxine Singer of NIH and Dieter Soll of Yale. Ziff and Sedat urged the chairs to schedule a discussion of the potential hazards in the experiments disclosed in the afternoon's session.
From page 272...
... stemming from the ability to generate hybrid DNA molecules.36 Berg convened the meeting he had in mind at MIT on April 17, 1974. The six other participants selected by Berg independently were David Baltimore, James Watson, Dan Nathans, Sherman Weissman, Norton Zinder, and Richard Roblin.
From page 273...
... Establish a moratorium on certain experiments. The committee commented that such a moratorium was "most important, that until the potential hazards of such recombinant DNA molecules have been better evaluated or until adequate methods are developed for preventing their spread, scientists throughout the world [should:]
From page 274...
... The committee, which consisted of chairman Paul Berg, David Baltimore, Richard Roblin, Maxine Singer, Sherman Weissman, and Norton Zinder, was joined by several other scientists. Donald Brown, Richard Novick, and Aaron Shatkin had been summoned because they were to play key roles as chairmen of three working groups (on plasmid-cell DNA recombinants, plasmid-phages, and animal viruses, respectively)
From page 275...
... Baltimore reminded the audience that if it could not reach consensus, there was no one else to whom it could turn. Paul Berg next stepped to the podium to review the basics of recombinant DNA technology.
From page 276...
... After it was all over, however, Anderson's criticism of the conference remained unmitigated.44 Another speaker on the first day, Roy Curtiss from the University of Alabama, had displayed a very different reaction to the Berg report. A month after it appeared he had sent a 16-page memorandum to the signatories and distributed hundreds of copies to the world community of molecular biologists, in which he stated, "I heartily endorse the aims, but not necessarily the scope of your recommendations....
From page 277...
... To end his presentation, Green held out astringent balm to any injured by this forecast by noting that "all institutions in society are imperfect and of these the government is the most imperfect."47 Tuesday, February 25~effing Down to Guidelines The second day began with Richard Novick's presentation of the report of his working group "Potential Biohazards Associated with Experimentation Involving Genetically Altered Microorganisms, with Special Reference to Bacterial Plasmids and Phages."48 The conclusions of this first of the working group reports were most conservative. The document contained extensive recommendations for classifying, monitoring, and designing many classes of experiments, and it would later serve as a template for the future recommendations of the NIT Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.
From page 278...
... Josh Lederberg rose to express grave concern about the danger of the panel's recommendations "crystallizing into legislation"; Ephraim Anderson then demanded that the panel indicate, by a show of hands, which of its members "had experience with the handling and disposal of pathogenetic organisms capable of causing epidemic disease." When the panel members rather sheepishly admitted that they had all probably had too little, their tormentor added insult to injury by nipping away at the grammar and syntax of the report. Suddenly James Watson uttered a call for an end to the moratorium moreover, "without the kind of categorical restrictions called for in the plasmid report." Rogers recalled that Maxine Singer was on her feet immediately to ask what had changed in the last six months to cause Watson to abandon the movement he had helped to launch.49 In line with the assessment of a number of subsequent commentators, Rogers admired Sydney Brenner ("the single most forceful presence at Asilomar")
From page 279...
... The preamble to the report read as follows: The construction and study of hybrid DNA molecules offer many potential scientific and social benefits. Because the possible biohazards associated with the work are difficult to assess and may be real, it is essential that investigations be re-initiated only under conditions designed to reduce the possible risks.
From page 280...
... Alexander Capron, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, began with his impressions of the conference, likening it to typical scientific meetings (highly technical in content- "like Cold Spring Harbor"~. "In other words," Capron snapped, "counter-phobic behavior." He too believed that the public would have
From page 281...
... Keenly conscious that his deadline was noon, Paul Berg began by recapitulating the three responsibilities the organizing committee had accepted: (1) to organize the conference to bring experts together for a discussion of the risks of recombinant DNA research; (2)
From page 282...
... Thus, the statement with which they had begun the morning although frayed and variously patched along the way—had made it through, still holding to the framework fashioned by the organizing committee in their last night's vigil.54 Someone had asked the Russian delegates to remain to the end. A spokesman for the group rose and, in a brief statement, said that a world partitioned politically could nevertheless hold an undivided scientific community.55 By 12:15 p.m.
From page 283...
... The same day, the new NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee met for the first time and adopted the provisional statement of the conference as interim rules for federally supported laboratories in the United States. CONCLUSION The conference organizing committee Berg, Baltimore, Brenner, Roblin, and Singer submitted the final report of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules to the NAS Assembly of Life Sciences under a cover letter from Berg, dated April 29, 1975.
From page 284...
... On the basis of these directives, as amended, all member states are expected to enact statutes that provide for harmonization of the rules for recombinant DNA technology throughout the European Economic Community. Long before the outcomes of the Asilomar conference could be properly assessed, lists of its putative deficiencies or limitations as a policymaking model for the recombinant DNA debate were being compiled.58 Yet hindsight, though a powerful weapon, can easily be warped by time.
From page 285...
... In the preparation of this essay the author also made extensive use of other sources: the MIT Recombinant DNA Historical Collection at the MIT Archives; the Archives of the National Academy of Sciences, including the original tape recordings of the conference; the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Central Files; and the collections of the National Library of Medicine.
From page 286...
... 12. See the description of a meeting at Rockefeller University, October 2, 1966, reported in the MIT Archives, MIT Recombinant DNA History Collection, Box 16, Folder 204.
From page 287...
... U.S.-Japan conference on bacterial plasmids, Honolulu, 1972, reported in the MIT Archives, MIT Recombinant DNA History Collection, Box 16, Folder 206.
From page 288...
... (For his sources, Krimsky makes particular use of a transcript of an interview with Maxine Singer on July 31, 1975 EMIT Archives, MIT Recombinant DNA Historical Collection, Box 13, Folder 151] and a transcript of an interview with Daniel Singer, July 28, 1975 EMIT Archives, MIT Recombinant DNA History Collection, Box 13, Folder 1501.)
From page 289...
... In the course of preparing a lecture on bioethics, he remembered the letter from the Gordon conference and wrote to the Academy inquiring what had happened to the issue (letter from Richard Roblin to Leonard Laster, March 20, 1974, contained in the NAS Archives, Folder ALS, Committee on Recombinant DNA Molecules, Ad Hoc, 19741. Roblin was referred to Berg, who suggested that he attend the planning committee meeting.
From page 290...
... See R Roblin's notes on the planning meeting for the Asilomar conference, and Herman Lewis's notes on the biohazard conference organizing committee meeting, MIT, September 10, 1974, contained in the MIT Archives, MIT Recombinant DNA History Collection, Box 16, Folder 207.
From page 291...
... 52. Open letter to the Asilomar conference on hazards of recombinant DNA from Science for the People, contained in the MIT Archives, MIT Recombinant DNA History Collection, Box 17, Folder 219.
From page 292...
... FREDRICKSON 57. Letter from Philip Handler to James Ebert, May 2O, 1975, contained in the NAS Archives, Folder ADM, International Relations, International Conferences, Recombinant DNA Molecules, Organizing Committee, Report.
From page 293...
... Baron, Chief, Department of Bacterial Immunology, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research Michael Beer, Department of Biophysics, The Johns Hopkins University Jerome Birnbaum, Basic Microbiology, Merck Institute J Michael Bishop, Professor of Microbiology, University of California Medical Center, San Francisco David Botstein, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Herbert Boyer, Department of Microbiology, University of California Medical Center, San Francisco Donald D
From page 294...
... Jackson, Department of Microbiology, University of Michigan Medical School Leon Jacobs, Associate Director for Collaborative Research, National Institutes of Health Henry Kaplan, Department of Radiology, Stanford University Medical Center Joshua Lederberg, Professor, Department of Genetics, Stanford University Medical Center Arthur S Levine, Head, Section on Infectious Diseases, National Cancer Institute
From page 295...
... Novick, Department of Microbiology, Public Health Research Institute, New York Ronald Olsen, Department of Microbiology, University of Michigan Richard J Roberts, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory William Robinson, Department of Infectious Diseases, Stanford University Medical Center Stanfield Rogers, Department of Biochemistry, University of Tennessee Medical Units Bernard Roizman, Professor of Microbiology and Biophysics, University of Chicago Joe Sambrook, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Jane Setlow, Brookhaven National Laboratory Philip Sharp, Center for Cancer Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Aaron J
From page 296...
... Wanner, Associate Director for Environmental Health and Safety, Division of Research Services, National Institutes of Health James Watson, Professor, Department of Biology, Harvard University Peter Weglinski, Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Bernard Weisblum, Professor, Department of Pharmacology, University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison Sherman Weissman, Professor, Department of Medicine, Biology, and Molecular Biophysics, Yale University Pieter Wensink, Brandeis University Frank Young, Department of Microbiology, University of Rochester Norton D Zinder, Professor, The Rockefeller University Foreign Participants Ephraim S
From page 297...
... Philippe Kourilsky, Institut Pasteur de Paris, France Ole Maaloe, Professor, Department of Microbiology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark Alastair T Matheson, Senior Research Officer, Division of Biological Sciences, National Research Council, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada Kenichi Matsubara, Department of Biochemistry, Kyushu University, Fukuoka, Japan Andrey D
From page 298...
... Silvestri, Gruppo Lepetit, Milan, Italy Lou Siminovitch, Department of Medical Genetics, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada H Williams Smith, Houghton Poultry Research Station, Huntingdon, England Peter Starlinger, Institut fur Genetik der Universitat Koln, Germany Pierre Tiollais, Institut Pasteur de Paris, France Alfred Tissieres, Professor, Departement de la Biologie Moleculaire, Geneva, Switzerland John Tooze, EMBO, Heidelberg, West Germany Alex J
From page 299...
... Stanley Cohen expressed the intent of the scientists who organized the conference: "If the collective wisdom of this group doesn't result in recommendations, the recommendations may come from other groups less well qualified." It was, in many ways, a symbolic event. It symbolized the sense of social responsibility among scientists concerned about the potential hazards of their research.
From page 300...
... Scientific autonomy was the issue at stake. The Asilomar conference was neither the beginning nor the end of public efforts to constrain the autonomy of science.
From page 301...
... The more science is valued as a political and economic resource, the less scientists can expect to avoid increasing public control. In this context, the Asilomar conference and the events it subsequently provoked were more a beginning than an end.
From page 302...
... News of the scientists' concerns about the possibility of serious, unpredictable consequences of crossing natural genetic barriers triggered strong opposition to DNA research in many communities and led legislators to begin cirafting strict regulation to control the specter of risk raised at Asilomar. Despite an exemplary record of safety, public perceptions of risk have had a continuing impact on recombinant DNA research and clevelopment.
From page 303...
... THE NATURE OF PERCEPTION Serious studies of risk perception began in the mid-1 970s, about the same time as the Asilomar conference. These studies have sought to determine why the public is anxious about some technologies (e.g., nuclear power)
From page 304...
... Those in charge of managing nuclear power and nonmedical chemical technologies are clearly less trusted. In addition, the benefits of these technologies are not highly appreciated; hence, their risks are less acceptable.
From page 305...
... Signal value reflects the perception that the event provides new information about the likelihood of similar or more destructive future mishaps. The informativeness or signal value of an event, and thus its potential social impact, appears to be systematically related to the characteristics of the hazard.
From page 306...
... Francis Black's position (i.e., his willingness to risk losing five or ten lives in recombinant DNA research as a small price for the number of lives that might eventually be saved) was thus unwise (see Fredrickson, footnote 251.
From page 307...
... 1986. The Gene-Splicing Wars: Reflections on the Recombinant DNA Controversy.


This material may be derived from roughly machine-read images, and so is provided only to facilitate research.
More information on Chapter Skim is available.