Cambridge Massachusetts City Council hearings on the safety of DNA technology

At the local level, the debate centered on whether the potentially dangerous research should be conducted in an urban setting, or a more rural setting.  The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, two of the leading research institutions in the country, held hearings on recombinant DNA research in 1976.  The hearings, captured on video by an MIT professor of the history of science, highlighted the debate occurring within the scientific community.

Mark Ptashne, a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Harvard, spoke in favor of allowing recombinant DNA research to proceed under the federal regulations:

Let me begin by giving you a blanket statement of fact:  No known dangerous organism has ever been produced by a recombinant DNA experiment. For what it’s worth, during the past two years, millions of bacterial cells, carrying pieces of foreign DNA from other bacteria, from yeast, from fruit flies, from frogs, in other words, typical recombinant DNA experiments, have been constructed in many laboratories in this country. So far as we know, none of these cells containing foreign DNA has proved itself hazardous. Similar research with recombinant DNA has been going on over the past two years all over the world.

You must realize, that unlike other real risks involved in experimentation, the risks in this case are purely hypothetical.  Not only has no known dangerous organism ever been produced, but I believe it to be the opinion of the overwhelming majority of microbiologists that there is, in fact, no significant risk involved in experiments authorized to be done by the federal guidelines in P1, P2, or P3 laboratories.

Ruth Hubbard, a Professor of Biology at Harvard, eloquently expressed the concern of some scientists:

[They] propose that these experiments be done in containment facilities, so-called, but everyone agrees that such facilities cannot, in fact, contain E. Coli, that is keep it in.  Because it will inevitably be carried out by the people who work with it, on their clothes, in their hair, on their skin, in their throats.  And it will be communicated by them to other people.

It is quite possible that these people themselves will not get sick from these E. coli that they carry, but that when they come in contact with people who are more susceptible, like for example, people who have just taken a course of penicillin that has just killed all the bacteria in their gut and who are, therefore, just in process of developing a new culture of bacteria, that they may take up large numbers of these new strains and may get sick.

Another example, newborn infants have no bacteria in their guts and gradually acquire them. Should people doing this kind of work be allowed to come in contact with newborns? Should they be isolated from them? There are a whole host of questions that could be answered by working on animals and that we do not know the answers to at this time.

The point is, we don’t know. And the people who want to go ahead with the work don’t know, because this kind of work has not been done before. The best course, therefore, is to be extremely cautious until we know more and particularly with coli. Because if a dangerous strain of coli gets going, since it can live in us and in so many other places and can multiply rapidly, it can get all over the place before we even know that it is out. And after that, we cannot call it back.

The Cambridge City Council initially adopted a three month moratorium, which then was extended for another three months, on the recombinant DNA research considered most dangerous.  The city council eventually adopted an ordinance that allowed recombinant DNA research within the city as long as it followed national guidelines established by the NIH with two additional conditions: a city biohazards committee would be established to monitor and oversee the research to provide an element of local control and that the health of personnel who come into contact with recombinant DNA would be closely monitored.


One restriction in the NIH regulations was to only use certified vectors, certified by an NIH committee that ensured these vectors were safe.   The necessity of this regulation was controversial within the community of scientists, however most everyone agreed to these new rules.