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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.2 (2001) 183-185

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Reflections on Asilomar 2 at Asilomar 3
Twenty-Five Years Later

Paul Berg

Like a traveler who looks back on the choices, directions, and numerous turns taken during an adventure, I have often wondered if things would have turned out differently if certain decisions before, during, and after Asilomar 2 had not been taken, or if things had been done differently. For example, I wonder what would have happened if the participants of the 1973 Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids had chosen not to call public attention to their concerns about the potential health risks of pursuing the newly developed recombinant DNA technology. Most likely the meeting that resulted in the publication of the "moratorium letter" and the recommendation for Asilomar 2 would never have occurred.

Furthermore, I expect that the dynamics of the discussions and debates about recombinant DNA would have been very different. There were certainly scientists who would not have remained silent when they learned of the breakthrough. They would very likely have "blown the whistle," calling attention to the breakthrough and predicting considerably more alarming scenarios. Scientists would have been charged with protecting their own interests while endangering the public's health and safety. In short, the safety issues and the attending "what ifs" would have been raised by accusers rather than by the practitioners [End Page 183] themselves. The public might reasonably have viewed scientists as being irresponsible, even criminal. Consequently, we would have been forced to defend our "misbehavior" and quite possibly to accept repressive actions by federal and state governments. At the very least, I believe, we might have had to contend with the same kind of sniping and roadblocks that now restrain fetal tissue and stem cell research.

What did the actions taken by the scientific community achieve? First and foremost, we gained the public's trust, for it was the very scientists who were most involved in the work and had every incentive to be left free to pursue their dream who called attention to the risks--however small--inherent in the experiments they were doing. Aside from the "historic" nature of that action, the scientists' call for a temporary halt to the experiments that most concerned them and their assumption of responsibility for assessing and dealing with those risks was widely acclaimed as laudable and ethical behavior. If the Asilomar exercise was a success, it was because scientists took the initiative in raising the issue rather than having it raised against them; that initiative engendered considerable credibility instead of cynical suspicion of what was to follow.

Are the criticisms that the organizers and participants of the Asilomar exercise deliberately limited the boundaries of the concerns that were addressed at Asilomar justifiable? There are those who indict the participants for ignoring the increased perils of biological warfare made possible by the development of the new recombinant technology. Others contend that the ethical dilemmas that have emerged following the more recent applications of the technology to somatic and germ-line gene therapy or to the creation of genetically modified food plants were ignored or marginalized. It should not be forgotten that the more immediate issue confronting the Asilomar organizers and participants was the one the scientists had raised: the potential risks to human health and the environment posed by the expanding recombinant DNA technology. A meeting of scientists could hardly have been competent to evaluate the impacts of the new technology on biological weapons development, especially since the superpowers had ratified an international treaty agreeing not to undertake the development of new biological weapons, using existing or any new technologies. Moreover, the conference recognized that the new technology would make possible new approaches to detecting and treating genetic disorders and would very likely transform industrial and agricultural practices. But as these possibilities were still far in the future and a more urgent need took precedence, we could not avoid the question of whether there were serious health hazards associated with going forward with the experiments that were being...


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