"Asilomar Revisited: Lessons For Today?" Essay

1922 words - 8 pages

Those were some of the questions on the minds of 55 scientists, lawyers, historians, and ethicists who gathered here last month at the Asilomar Conference Center near Monterey to mark the 25th anniversary of that historic meeting. In February 1975, 140 participants--mostly biologists, with a handful of lawyers and physicians and 16 members of the press--gathered at the rustic conference center overlooking the Pacific to tussle with an issue that had just burst onto the biology scene: the safety of recombinant DNA research. Known officially as the International Congress on Recombinant DNA Molecules but remembered ever since simply as "Asilomar," that meeting was widely hailed as a landmark of social responsibility and self-governance by scientists. The participants in last month's conference*--who included 11 of the 1975 conferees--were not just here to reminisce. Legal scholar Alex Capron, a participant in the 1975 meeting and now co-director of the Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, assembled the group to discuss what lessons could be learned from the "Asilomar process" and, specifically, whether there are situations today in which it might be appropriately applied.Asilomar occurred at a unique moment in biology. Researchers had just discovered how to cut and splice together the DNA of disparate species and were beginning to contemplate the cornucopia of experiments this opened up. "Recombinant DNA was the most monumental power ever handed to us," said California Institute of Technology president David Baltimore, one of the organizers of the 1975 meeting. "The moment you heard you could do this, the imagination went wild." But a number of scientists at the time raised concerns about whether such experiments might create dangerous new organisms, microscopic Frankensteins that could sneak out of the lab undetected on the sole of a Hush Puppy and threaten public health.Those concerns triggered a "hectic experience" of scientific soul-searching that culminated in the 1975 Asilomar conference, recalled Stanford molecular biologist Paul Berg, another organizer of that meeting. Participants at a June 1973 Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids had published a letter expressing concern about recombinant DNA research. In response, Berg led a committee of the National Academy of Sciences that in July 1974 took the unusual move of calling for a voluntary moratorium on certain types of recombinant DNA experiments until the hazards could be evaluated.Berg and several colleagues organized the Asilomar meeting 7 months later to bring together "people who were engaged in the research or were likely or eager to use it." The organizers also brought in researchers with expertise in bacteria and viruses to help assess the potential hazards. A sense of urgency pervaded the meeting, in part because researchers were impatient to put the new technology to work. Although most of the participants suspected...

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