As recombinant DNA techniques became more widespread in the 1970s, concern grew in the scientific community and among the public that microbes manipulated through recombinant DNA techniques could endanger the health of humans and the environment.
In 1971, researchers inserted the genome of a tumor-causing virus, SV40, into a bacterial plasmid that could reproduce in E. coli. As the research proceeded, concerns arose that if this engineered strain of E. coli were accidentally released into the human population, it could cause a cancer epidemic. Scientists voluntarily halted the experiments until a determination could be made regarding the risk of the experimental plasmid spreading to strains of E. coli that exist naturally in the human body.
A group of leading scientists asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to assess the concerns and provide recommendations on how to proceed. The resulting NAS Committee on Recombinant DNA Molecules issued a letter endorsing a voluntary moratorium on specific types of recombinant DNA research “until the potential hazards of such recombinant DNA molecules have been better evaluated or until adequate methods are developed for preventing their spread.” In the letter, the committee acknowledged that it was difficult to estimate risk and recommended that an international conference of involved scientists be held to examine the question more closely.a
The resulting Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA took place in February 1975 in Pacific Grove, California. Its purpose was to make recommendations on whether to end the moratorium, and if so, under what circumstances. One-hundred fifty participants gathered, including biologists, lawyers, physicians, and journalists. The discussions were vigorous and contentious, and encompassed views ranging from the insistence that no limits be placed on scientists’ freedom to the view that limits should be entertained. Participants from the scientific community felt strongly that if they did not arrive at a path forward, that path would likely be determined by others.
The outcome of the conference was a nearly unanimous agreement to lift the moratorium and to require that recombinant DNA research be carried out according to yet-to-be-determined guidelines that would define levels of physical and biological containment based upon the potential risk posed by a given research project.b
a Committee on Recombinant DNA Molecules, “Potential Biohazards of Recombinant DNA Molecules,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 71, no. 7 (July 1974): 2593-2594.
b Paul Berg, et al., “Summary Statement of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 72, no. 6 (June 1975): 1981-1984; Susan Wright, Molecular Politics: Developing American and British Regulatory Policy for Genetic Engineering, 1972-1982 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).