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Education: Higher Education

Engineering the Genes: Ethical Dilemmas in Modern Biotechnology

Part 1: Biotechnology as the manipulation of life: the recombinant DNA debate of the 1970s


The era of biotechnology unfolded amid intense public scrutiny of science and technology. By the early 1970s, issues like nuclear disarmament, overpopulation and environmental crisis, and the revelation of the mistreatment of human subjects of scientific and medical research (most notoriously in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study), had drawn sharp and sustained public criticism and calls for government intervention. Biotechnology developed amid this context of public pessimism about science and technology. As a result, although in its earliest years the experts managed to confine discussions of biotechnology to professional forums, by the mid to late 1970s, the debates had exploded into public view and occasioned broad public involvement. Whether the lay public had any right to a voice in scientific and technical matters was itself a central point of contention.

In 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen achieved a major technical feat: they removed a gene from one organism and spliced it into another of a different species, where it was taken up by the host organism, replicated, and expressed. The earliest method of recombining DNA in this way, excised a gene for some important biological substance and placed it into a bacterium, turning the cell into a factory that would churn out whatever it was that the transplanted gene coded for. Insulin, human growth hormone, and other biological substances could now be produced quickly and on a massive scale. Proponents foresaw the promise of such a technique. Transgenic technology could transform the food supply: if bacteria could be genetically modified, could crops and farm animals also be precisely engineered to possess desirable traits, avoiding the laborious process of conventional breeding? Could biotechnology help eradicate disease by gene therapy—the transplanting of healthy genes into sick people? Could biotechnology even endow future children with genes for health, strength, and intelligence as yet undreamt of?

Whether genetically modified microorganisms should become factories in this way—whether a biological organism had an essential nature and an integrity that deserved not to be violated—and what implications biotechnology held for the human relationship to nature—were questions hotly debated in public forums. In 1976, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Council, convened by Mayor Alfred Vellucci, invited several scientific experts to answer questions from the public about a proposed lab at Harvard for the new recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology. The hearing was followed by the passage in Cambridge of the nation’s first law regulating rDNA research. In 1977, Jeremy Rifkin began his career as a public biotechnology critic, interrupting a National Academy of Sciences meeting on rDNA science and policy and forcing its organizers to grant him speaking time (Krimsky, Biotechnics and Society, p. 109). By the early 1980s, public concern over the environmental effects of the ice minus bacterium, genetically modified to counter frost damage on crops, delayed approval for several years of its release in a field test.

In this part of the module, we focus on the growing debate over the risks of biotech, from the scientists’ early attempts to contain the debate at the Asilomar meeting, to the public spectacle of experts in disagreement at the Cambridge hearing, to the public protests over large-scale deliberate release of transgenic organisms into the environment. What constitutes “risk” is here revealed to be a very slippery matter. There is no singular, objective meaning for risk, and different parties to the debate had different standards for and ways of defining risk.

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Class 1: Recombining the genes: the promise and threat of a new technology

discussion resources
Discussion questions:
  1. What were the main events of the early decades of recombinant DNA research and policy?
  2. What were Wald’s claims about the dangers of DNA experimentation, and how did his opponents counter them? Did you find either side convincing; why or why not?
  3. How and why did the different sides define the risks of rDNA research differently? What sorts of evidence did each side use?
  4. How did the ideas about risk change over time, as the debate moved to different forums, from the Asilomar meeting and the Recombinant Advisory Committee to the public debates over deliberate release in the 1980s?
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Class 2: The experts and the public: the Cambridge City Council Hearing (1976) on the risks and regulation of scientific research.

Students portray the different sides represented at the hearing: Maxine Singer and Mark Ptashne (the proponents of recombinant DNA research); Jonathan King, George Wald, and Ruth Hubbard (the critics); and Mayor Vellucci and members of the City Council. It is suggested to watch the video after holding the debate.

debate resources:
  • Durant, John. “‘Refrain from Using the Alphabet’: How Community Outreach Catalyzed the Life Sciences at MIT.” In Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision. Edited by David Kaiser. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010, pp. 145-163.
  • Gottweis, Herbert. “Molecularizing Risk: The Asilomar Legacy in the United States and Europe.” In Governing Molecules: the Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1998. pp. 77-152.
  • Weiner, Charles. “Recombinant DNA Policy: Asilomar Conference.” In Encyclopedia of Ethical, Legal, and Policy Issues in Biotechnology. Edited by Thomas J. Murray and Maxwell J. Mehlman. New York, NY: Wiley, 2010, Vol. 2, p. 210.
  • “Hypothetical Risk: Cambridge City Council’s Hearings on Recombinant DNA Research” (1976). MIT Oral History Program video,14:43. From the recording in June 1976 at City Hall, Cambridge MA. Posted by MIT TechTV, March 25, 2011. . (Start video at 20 minutes and watch the last 12 minutes.)
debate questions
  1. Is the process of rDNA “instant evolution,” a process qualitatively different from conventional breeding and natural evolution?
  2. Should the experts be writing the rules for themselves, or is this a conflict of interest?
  3. Do living things have “inherent natures” that should not be tampered with-- and where do we draw the line?
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