Amid Gene Editing Worry, A Return To Biotech’s 1st “Asilomar Moment”


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watched their seniors thrash out a final statement. Only two voices warned that regulating risks that could not be quantified in advance risked bringing police into the lab. They were Nobel winners James D. Watson of Harvard, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the DNA double helix, and Joshua Lederberg of Stanford, co-discoverer of mating in bacteria.

In retrospect, Asilomar is viewed as an example of responsible action by scientists entering a new field of first importance to humanity. They gathered to consider the risks of particular types of experiments before undertaking them, and they hammered out detailed principles that should govern regulation of those experiments. As intended, many of these Asilomar principles were embodied in rules issued by the Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health in June 1976. These rules were relaxed over succeeding years as laboratory experience accumulated and dangers of genetic engineering failed to materialize.

But there was widespread and fierce opposition to the emerging biotechnology. The NIH issued those guidelines on the very day of a heated, televised meeting of the city council of Cambridge, MA, which debated a total ban on all recombinant DNA or gene-splicing research. The ban would have fallen on both Harvard and MIT. A second, calmer meeting of the council set up a study commission, which six months later recommended that Cambridge adopt the NIH guidelines as a city ordinance, which the city council did.

The tense debate in Cambridge was repeated in other cities across the country, and also at the state and federal levels. In New York, the legislature passed a restrictive bill. Only after furious lobbying by such biologists as Norton Zinder of Rockefeller University, did New York Governor Hugh Carey veto the bill in the summer of 1977 as a restriction of academic freedom.

For a considerable time, it looked as if a U.S. commission analogous to the ones regulating atomic energy would be set up for biology. Sponsored by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the legislation ultimately died in a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, in part because of animosity between the committee’s chair and the chair of the subcommittee shaping the bill. Kennedy put off action in September 1977, shortly before NIH’s Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) began to relax the rules.

But researchers’ and investors’ fear that a patchwork of regulation would cripple biotechnology in the United States did not disappear right away. Biologist Thomas Maniatis of Harvard left his home lab to work on the techniques in tighter-security conditions at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Others went abroad. Biogen, founded in 1978, put its first major lab in Geneva, Switzerland.

This was a time of intense concern about environmental dangers from the chemical industry in particular and science in general. It took some years for biologists to gain respect among local state, and federal officials for their sense of responsibility in the recombinant DNA maelstrom of the mid-1970s. But politicians did accept that biotechnology was a significant new industry that other countries, like Japan, might seize if America dropped the ball.

Although biotechnology established itself as economically important and focused on hitherto-untreated diseases, there was also growing polarization of opinion over issues like abortion. Clearly the new respect for life sciences had its limits. There were many years of later interference with research on stem cells (in which Congress repeatedly passed bans on federal funding).

The momentous events around Asilomar made for a precarious time for the life sciences, and should operate as a caution in how the debate on gene editing is carried on, lest it be derailed by irrationality.

Asilomar Beach photo courtesy of Michelle via Creative Commons license.

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Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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