Safety and ethical issues debated in recombinant DNA technology

As the possibilities of a disaster became apparent, leading scientists joined together to call for a moratorium on this research until a thorough discussion of the safety occurred.   A meeting was organized at Asilomar, a coastal resort in Northern California, to discuss safety issues in 1975.  The meeting consisted of scientists active in this burgeoning field.  The consensus at the meeting was that the moratorium should be lifted, scientists should voluntarily agree to a number of restrictions on recombinant DNA research, and that national regulations should be drawn up to ensure the safety of the public.

Recombinant DNA technology was new and raised significant ethical issues in the 1970’s.  People thought this technology would enable the creation of new organisms.  The concern was that these new organisms could escape from the laboratory and rapidly populate the earth.  The debate came down to a central issue, how likely was it for these organisms to escape and flourish outside of the controlled laboratory environment?  Those that feared this outcome, thought that recombinant DNA technology should be halted, or at least only performed under strict controls.  Those that thought it unlikely for these recombinant organisms to escape and flourish thought that strict controls were unnecessary and would only slow down life saving research.

The ethical debate played out on different levels.  At the national level, one concern was fear over scientists creating some type of superbug that would wipe out humanity.  E. Coli was the most common target of recombinant DNA research.  Its natural home was the human digestive system.  What if a modified E. Coli escaped the laboratory, would it take up residence in some people’s digestive tract and fundamentally alter their health?  These problems were recognized by the leaders of the field.  In July 1974, a short letter authored by leading scientists in the field appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.  These scientists proposed a national ban on recombinant DNA research until the risks were better understood.