Volume 4, Issue 2 
December 2009

Recombinant DNA and Self-replicating Molecular Manufacturing: Parallels and Lessons

James B. Lewis, Ph.D

Page 2 of 6

Asilomar succeeded because the organizers made a deliberate choice to only address the immediate issue of how to prevent recombinant DNA technology from threatening public health. This was the one issue that had raised the concern that necessitated the meeting, and in principle (although not all the important information was yet available at the time of the meeting) it was a question that could be answered by science:

Further, this was the one crucial issue that had to be resolved for research to go forward and for the myriad benefits of biotechnology to be realized.what types of containment could reduce the risk to acceptable levels?The Asilomar participants chose not to consider various ethical issues that could be linked to recombinant DNA l1research, and which were associated with a general uneasiness felt in many quarters about the prospects for genetic engineering [1]. Would recombinant DNA technology make biological warfare more lethal? What were the implications of gene therapy, germ line modifications, or the patenting of organisms and genes? Who bore the risks and who collected the profits? What were the implications of genetically modified foods for health, for the environment, and for farmers? Genetically modified food (especially in Europe), embryonic stem cell research, and human enhancement and cloning have proven to be particularly controversial topics.

These various social, economic, political, religious, and ethical issues remain controversial because they reflect deep divisions of interests and values within society, and fundamental differences of opinion on the nature of human dignity and human value. Further, biotechnology has become an important component of international economic competition.

A related issue that developed in the years following Asilomar is that, although initially the scientific community was praised for being socially responsible and self-governing for first addressing and then resolving the issue of the safety of recombinant DNA technology, it was later criticized for self-regulating an emerging technology (genetic engineering) that was seen to have significant public policy aspects without including non-scientists in the discussions and decision-making. In retrospect, the scientists were certainly correct to do it the way they did—had they opened Asilomar to a wider community and addressed the other, underlying issues they never would have dealt with the crucial safety question that had occasioned the moratorium, the experiments would probably have been greatly delayed, and biotechnology might have been stillborn. One cannot help wonder, however, whether some of the later controversy would have been ameliorated had a parallel series of discussions been initiated in which a wider community had been invited to consider a wider range of issues. In sum, Asilomar provided what was needed to launch a new field of science, a new technology, and a new industry.

It dealt very well with the perceived problem with the new biotechnology, but the perceived problem was not l2really a problem after all, and the perceived problem had very little to do with the real problems that underlay societal unease with respect to the new technology, and which formed the basis for continuing controversy. Perhaps the legacy of Asilomar is best summed up by Berg and Singer, two organizers of the Asilomar conference, writing in 1995 (when the human genome project was launched) [2]:

September 14, 2009 9:29AM EST

"Inferring evil intent and calling for bans on genetic research denies the value of such research in fulfilling human dreams for improved health and the sustenance of a growing human population. Vigorous, informed public debate on all these issues should be fostered, as it is by the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) Program of the Human Genome Project. The need for this debate is one reason to encourage widespread improvement in science education in American schools.

[1] "Asilomar Revisited: Lessons for Today?" Marcia Barinaga, Science 287, 1584 - 1585 (2000). http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.287.5458.1584. Also available at http://www.biotech-info.net/asilomar_revisited.html.

[2] "The recombinant DNA controversy: Twenty years later," Paul Berg and Maxine F. Singer, Proceedings National Academy of Sciences USA 92, 9011-9013 (1995), http://www.pnas.org/content/92/20/9011.full.pdf+html



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