Federation of American Scientists Case Studies in Dual Use Biological Research Module 8.0: Public Reaction Case Study
Topic: History Recombinant DNA

Recombinant DNA

One of the most notable examples of scientists recognizing the possible risks of their work and taking steps to address them occurred in the early 1970’s. There was significant concern raised within the molecular biology community by new techniques to create recombinant DNA, and especially the potential hazards associated with using the DNA of cancer causing viruses.

At the 1973 Gordon Conference on Nucleic acids, the attendees drafted a letter to the President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the President of the Institute of Medicine. The letter, also published in Science magazine, communicated the conference attendees’ concerns about scientific advances with recombinant DNA and suggested that the NAS examine the new techniques, assess the potential hazards and recommend specific actions or guidelines. The letter notes that “although no specific hazard has yet been established, prudence suggests that the potential hazard be seriously considered.”

The NAS president responded by recommending that a study committee within the newly established Assembly for the Life Sciences be convened to examine the issues. The following year, the Committee on Recombinant DNA Molecules published their recommendations in Science magazine. They called for a voluntary moratorium on recombinant DNA experiments that could result in the introduction of antibiotic resistance or toxin formation, or experiments where DNA from oncogenic viruses was put into plasmids or viral vectors. In addition, it was recommended that other recombinant DNA experiments only be undertaken after very careful consideration and until more was known about their safety. The committee also requested that the director of the NIH consider establishing an advisory committee focused on recombinant DNA and that an international meeting of scientists “be convened early in the coming year to review scientific progress in this area and to further discuss appropriate ways to deal with the potential biohazards of recombinant DNA molecules.”

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