Thursday, September 18, 2008

Asilomar '75

For those of you who have access, Nature has an interesting essay from Nobelist Paul Berg on the Asilomar Conference back in '75.

Berg originally organized the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA to discuss the potential biohazards and regulation of biotechnology. "At that gathering [of scientists]... it was agreed that the research should continue but under stringent guidelines. The conference marked the beginning of an exceptional era for science and for the public discussion of science policy." Jim Watson, who was at the meeting, was adamantly opposed to any regulation, but was soundly overruled.

The fears of many scientists turned out to be unfounded:

"In the 33 years since Asilomar, researchers around the world have carried out countless experiments with recombinant DNA without reported incident. Many of these experiments were inconceivable in 1975, yet as far as we know, none has been a hazard to public health. Moreover, the fear among scientists that artificially moving DNA among species would have profound effects on natural processes has substantially disappeared with the discovery that such exchanges occur in nature."

That was pretty much Jim Watson's opinion back in '75, but not many listened to him then. Watson later described Asilomar as "the worst week of my life".

Berg wonders, "Could an Asilomar-type conference help resolve some of the controversies now confronting scientists and the public — such as over fetal tissue, embryonic stem-cell research, somatic and germ-line gene therapy and the genetic modification of food crops?"

I disagree. I see no need for such regulation as the dangers posed by these technologies are excessively dramatized yet insufficiently documented. Moreover, unlike Asilomar, it is likely that any such conference today would be hijacked by ideological interests.

Photo: (left to right) Maxine Singer, Norton Zinder, Sydney Brenner, and Paul Berg were among the participants at the Asilomar Conference. From: National Academy of Sciences.

1 comment:

  1. The movement of e.g. Bt transgenes from crops to related wild plants is pretty convincing. I'd want to be careful about what is and is not given the stamp of approval by such a conference, and would follow the Asilomar model in introducing various risk categories.