Genetic Research

March 25, 1977

Report Outline
Controversy Over Gene-Splicing
Rise of Concern Among Scientists
Emergence of Citizen Oversight
Special Focus

Controversy Over Gene-Splicing

Visions of Great Benefits and Grave Perils

Many americans have never heard of recombinant DNA—a gene-splicing technique which enables scientists to combine the genetic material DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of different species and create new or drastically altered forms of life. Yet experiments in this relatively new area of genetics could have as great an impact on our lives as the splitting of the atom. “The discovery of recombinant DNA is one of the more striking technological achievements of our century,” declared biochemist Liebe F. Cavalieri of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research.

Like atomic energy, recombinant DNA research has the potential for great benefits and grave perils. Some scientists fear that these experiments could create dangerous life forms which, if they escaped from the laboratory, might unleash uncontrollable diseases or alter the course of evolution. Others say the risks are minimal and they claim that this research could revolutionize agriculture, greatly simplify control of pollution and lead to cures for diseases like cancer. Caught in the middle is the citizen who does not know which side to believe.

Adding to the public's confusion is the fact that the concerns over recombinant genetic engineering were raised initially by the very scientists doing the work. The issue came to public attention in July 1974 after a group of prominent scientists proposed a voluntary moratorium on certain gene-splicing experiments until the potential risks could be studied and proper safety measures could be worked out. The moratorium was lifted the following February after a group of scientists met at Asilomar, Calif., and adopted strict guidelines for all future research. The Asilomar guidelines were replaced by a stricter and more detailed set issued in June 1976 by the National Institutes of Health.

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