MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Photographs from Asilomar:
International Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules,
February 1975

For larger images and identification, click on the photographs

Researchers in molecular biology in the early 1970s had discovered how to cut and splice together DNA from different species, a breakthrough that opened up a plethora of experimental possibilities, but also provoked concern about safety and ethics. Many scientists worried that hybrid molecules from recombinant DNA experiments could result in dangerous new organisms that could pose a threat to public health. Others were deeply concerned about ethical issues related to genetic engineering, especially as it might be applied to humans.

Such soul-searching among scientists led the National Academy of Sciences to ask Paul Berg to head a committee to look into the potential hazards. The committee organized the International Congress on Recombinant DNA Molecules, which was held in February 1975 at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California. About 140 concerned parties (mostly molecular biologists, but including also a few physicians, lawyers, and journalists) attended the milestone gathering, which has come to be known as "Asilomar." A number of Nobel prizewinners (and future winners) were among the participants. James Watson (who, with Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin, figured out the molecular structure of DNA) as well as MIT's David Baltimore and Philip Sharp were at the conference.

Conferees agreed to address only safety issues at the meeting, leaving ethical discussions for the future. The main guidelines to emerge from the conference stipulated that recombinant DNA research should use only disabled bacteria that could not survive outside the laboratory. The dialogue sparked by Asilomar led to the National Institutes of Health guidelines, considered a landmark of self-regulation by scientists. Soon after the conclusion of the conference, MIT's Charles Weiner, Professor of the History of Science and Technology, initiated an oral history project to interview participants to record for posterity key aspects of the revolution in molecular biology and the controversies surrounding it.

The MIT Recombinant DNA History Collection, 1966-1978 (MC 100), is a large collection of documents, which includes transcripts of interviews with prominent scientists as well as audiotapes and videotapes of events relating to molecular biology. Materials are available for research in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.

Photographs courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences Archives

Object of the Month: February 2005

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