DNA Technology: ‘Moratorium’ on Use and Asilomar Conference


In 1974, leading American molecular biologists called for a voluntary moratorium on the rapidly developing practice of recombinant DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), halting many types of experiments mainly because of concerns they might accidentally create a dangerous new pathogen. A year later, they convened an international meeting of involved scientists in Asilomar, California, to draft a proposed set of safety regulations governing genetic engineering. These proposals, with few modifications, quickly became funding agency regulations or laws in many countries, and they were rapidly relaxed. The 1975 Asilomar conference is seen a landmark in the history of genetic engineering, an event that served as an influential model for policy making at that time. Its role as a model for self‐regulation and citizen participation in policy making on risky technologies has been questioned, particularly because commercial interests have been seen as major influences on the field's rapid development.

Key Concepts

  • Molecular biologists in 1974 called attention to the dangers associated with their new methods of recombinant DNA (gene splicing) and declared a temporary halt to much work of this kind.
  • Leading biologists, together with scientific institutions such as the US National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences, organised a meeting in 1975 at Asilomar, California, where the biologists decided among themselves what restrictions should apply to various types of genetic manipulation, addressing only laboratory safety but not wider social concerns.
  • The restrictions on gene splicing proposed at Asilomar by the scientists practicing the techniques became the basis for regulations and laws in many countries, under which gene splicing re‐commenced in 1976.
  • Although admired at the time, the way in which the regulations rapidly relaxed, as private companies created by some of the same scientists who crafted the regulations moved forward with commercial genetic engineering, has since attracted criticism of Asilomar as a tactic to forestall more restrictive regulation.

Keywords: Asilomar; Paul Berg; biotechnology industry; genetic engineering; biological weapons; human genetic modification; commercial collaborations; self‐regulation


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Tooze J and Watson J (1981) The DNA Story. San Francisco, NC: Freeman.

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Rasmussen, Nicolas(Jan 2015) DNA Technology: ‘Moratorium’ on Use and Asilomar Conference. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005613.pub2]