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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Milestone in Science: The Asilomar Conference, 1975

It was my privilege, recently, to travel to Pacific Grove, California. I noted, on maps of the area, the name Asilomar, which I remembered. We drove around the town, and my wife directed me down a street which had this sign.

We ate lunch near the grounds, and got to talking with a couple at another table. The woman told us that she was a high school art teacher, and that California teachers often had meetings at the conference center.

Why had I heard of the Asilomar conference grounds? I had heard of it because of a milestone in biology. In 1975, a group of geneticists (molecular biologists would be another name) met on these grounds. I remember reading what transpired there in the pages of Science and Nature. What did transpire there? Scientists considered what they were doing, and the likely consequences, and decided to put on the brakes. Such an event has been very rare in the history of science. In fact, I know of no similar decision by a group of working scientists.

The Wikipedia has a brief article on the conference, but there are a few links to excellent on-line sources. Perhaps the best such are "Asilomar Revisited," from Science, on the 25th anniversary of the conference, and "Asilomar and Recombinant DNA," by Paul Berg, one of the organizers, written in 2004. (Berg's article has photos of some of the participants, including James Watson, Sydney Brenner, Berg, Norton Zinder and David Baltimore, all Nobel Laureates, and Maxine Singer, one of the organizers, and prominent for many years in the field. (Singer was one of the few prominent females in late-twentieth century molecular biology.)

The conference of 1975 did not consider cloning, or, if it did, didn't consider it much. It considered issues of transplanting genes from one organism into another, and the possible immediate dangers to human health. The conclusions were that great care needed to be used, at least for some types of research (for example putting cancer-related genes in common bacteria). Do we need another conference, on the consequences of today's biological possibilities? Probably. But, for such things as stem cell research, it's probably too late -- there are too many researchers already. One thing that the anniversary article points out is that the participants in the original conference were mainly academics. Now, the supposed leading research, or at least the research that gets the most attention, is by scientists heavily tied to industry. That doesn't bode well for putting on the brakes, if brakes should be applied.

Here is an excerpt from Berg's most important paragraph:
An often-voiced criticism of the Asilomar Conference discussions was the failure to consider the ethical and legal implications of genetic engineering of plants, animals and humans. Did the organizers and participants of the Asilomar conference deliberately limit the scope of the concerns? . . . Others have been critical of the conference because it did not confront the potential misuse of the recombinant DNA technology or the ethical dilemmas that would arise from applying the technology to genetic screening and somatic and germ line gene therapy, or the environmental consequences arising from the creation of genetically modified food plants. . . . It should not be forgotten that these possibilities were still far in the future and the more immediate issue confronting the Asilomar organizers and participants was the one the scientists had raised: the potential risks to human health and the environment posed by the expanding recombinant DNA technology. . . . In short, the agenda for the three-day meeting had to focus on an assessment of the risks and how to eliminate or reduce the risks that seemed plausible. We accepted that the other issues would be dealt with as they became imminent and estimable.

I do not wish to criticize these pioneers. However, they act like most of us -- we worry about short-term dangers, and not about long-term ones, that may be more serious, or that raise more fundamental questions.

Thanks for reading!

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