The recombinant DNA controversy: twenty years later.

P Berg
M F Singer
Paul Berg, one of the scientists behind the original call for a voluntary moratorium on recombinant DNA research, and Maxine Singer, another molecular biologist and fellow Asilomar organizer, reflect on the legacy of Asilomar 20 years after the conference. They identify Asilomar “the beginning of an exceptional era for science and for the public discussion of science policy—one that continues unabated to this day.” They note the universal observance of the voluntary moratorium as evidence of its success. They focus on the health and safety concerns that compelled the call for a moratorium and approvingly note that these concerns were ultimately revealed to be unfounded once research resumed. Upholding the success of the “measured approach” to recombinant DNA research and its avoidance of legal regulation, they uphold the growth of the biotechnology industry as evidence. The authors address criticism that Asilomar did not consider the ethical and legal implications of recombinant DNA technology, insisting that public health and safety were more pressing. While citing recent (in 1995) debates over the patenting of genetically engineered organisms as a new domain in which scientific restraint is playing out, they also characterize religious objections to patenting life as impediments to the necessary commercialization of important research. Finally, and notably for present debates on moratoria, they cast doubt on the prospects of human germline genome editing: “there are technical reasons for believing that the value of such modifications for humans is questionable and, therefore, unnecessary.”