Asilomar (Annotation)


Analysis: Asilomar and Recombinant DNA: The End of the Beginning

Word Count: 1059 Words



  1. “Asilomar and Recombinant DNA: The End of the Beginning”, Donald Fredrickson, 1991
  2. This reading details the events leading up to and during the second Asilomar conference in 1975, and discusses the scientific, layperson, and general public reaction to the event. It includes the pivotal scientific and political events that led to research into recombinant DNA[1]; the discovery of the chemistry of genes and FDR’s direction to “continue federal financing of medical and other scientific research.” Learning the structure of genes and increasing funding opened the field of genetics, which led to the creation of the scientific field of molecular biology; molecular biology became the lucrative scientific field that researchers of all types flocked to. The inclusion of physicists, chemists, and mathematicians aided and boosted the growth of molecular biology. The reading discusses the discovery of SV40 contamination in polio vaccines, gene splicing, the rising tensions in the molecular biology field, and various meetings and conferences that eventually led to the Asilomar conference.
  3. The reading discusses how the scientific community relates to the government and the reaction to the Asilomar conference in 1975.
    In the 1940s, FDR directed that the government continue funding the scientific community even after World War II ended. In years leading up to this point, scientists were nervous about using government money because they felt the government would direct the course of their research and influence their results. With this issuance of money, scientists became less nervous and were more willing to use government money. Money was given to individual scientists rather than institutions based on peer review. The scientific community was largely given carte blanche to do whatever research they pleased; this was partially due to the fact that scientists had been given celebrity status and put on a pedestal after the abrupt, explosive ending of Japan’s involvement in World War II.
    The Asilomar conference laid some heavy regulations on the research done on rDNA. These restrictions caused friction within the scientific community, especially at Cambridge, Ann Arbor, and the Pasteur Institute. Laypersons and the general population were distressed at the outcome, and so the US government quickly became involved. Much of the distress came from the scientists at the conference “restricting themselves voluntarily … jeopardiz[ing] the freedom that was absolutely necessary for the vitality and success of their enterprise.”[2] However, the restrictions were loosened relatively quickly as “private companies that involved the same scientists who crafted the regulations moved forward with commercial genetic engineering.”[3] There is still some dubiousness as to the intentions of the Asilomar conference, including that the conference was a ruse to get loose restrictions in the future by artificially raising them currently[4]. This, along with other blunders in the scientific community, have muddied the reputation of science and stripped the community of its carte blanche. There is less public trust in the scientific community.
  4. The only part I found compelling was the beginning, in which the author talks about the birth of molecular biology as a field. Otherwise I did not enjoy reading this article. However, I did find it interesting to see where James Watson pops up in the story as his usual charming self. He demanded, without introduction, bacteria hybrid samples from Lewis; Lewis had been concerned with the hazards involved with studying and transporting hybrid DNA as there could be risks. I did appreciate that the author is attempting to construct a thoroughly objective account of the events surrounding the second Asilomar conference in 1975.
  5. I didn’t enjoy reading this because it was very long and the syntax often made it difficult to understand. The discussion of specific scientific jargon is one thing, but mixing it in with wacky sentence structure is another. While I find the inclusion of James Watson interesting, it led me to think about the ways in which he could have influenced the path of molecular biology as the discoverer of the structure of DNA. Could he have influenced the path of molecular biology to further his own commercial benefit? The sheer length of the reading made it a daunting read. I am annoyed that I could only find one woman is mentioned and she’s only mentioned in one or two sentences. I understand that there were very few women involved, but it is always good to hear about women in history.
    1. Author, about the events leading up to Asilomar:
      “The subject should be viewed in the broadest context; therefore, we must zoom in on it from the past, using a wide-angle lens.”
    2. Philippe Kourilsky, beginning quote:
      “How could one determine the reality…without experimenting…without taking minimum risk?”
    3. Author, about the strict self-regulation of scientists:
      “By restricting themselves voluntarily the scientists jeopardized the freedom that was absolutely necessary for the vitality and success of their enterprise.”
    4. Author:
      “This burgeoning scientific community quickly discovered that prewar fears of government interference with scientific freedoms were groundless.”
    5. Author, concluding sentence:
      “The scales that weigh Asilomar have to be calibrated using the context of all that contributed at that time to give the event its significance as the climactic end of the beginning of recombinant DNA research.”
    6. Paul Berg:
      “prudence demands caution and some serious efforts to define the limits of whatever potential hazards exist.”
  6. The reading deals with the relationship between science and government. The author says that the scientific community found that “prewar fears of government interference with scientific freedoms were groundless.” This could be due to the fact that the US government had recently worked with scientists to create the atomic bomb and ended the second World War with a bang. When is it beneficial for science and government to work together? When is it not?
    By self-regulating, the scientific community had to align itself to a general set of goals. This causes an overarching paradigm, and those who do not match up with the paradigm may fall off the wagon and their work may not get recognized until after the paradigm shifts (like Mendel or Barbara McClintock). Is a paradigm useful for scientific pursuit, or does it restrict deviation within science?

[1] I will refer to recombinant DNA as rDNA

[2] All quotes are from reading unless otherwise noted

[3] DNA Technology: ‘Moratorium’ on Use and Asilomar Conference, Wiley Online Library,

[4] The Asilomar Process: Is It Valid?, The Scientist,–Is-It-Valid-/