By Sven Ove Hansson, Programme Director
It has now been forty years since eleven American researchers, headed by Paul Berg, wrote a letter to the journal Science in 1974 proposing that scientists should “voluntarily defer” two types of experiments with biologically active recombinant DNA molecules. They did so because there was “serious concern that some of these artificial recombinant DNA molecules could prove biologically hazardous”.
In my view, they were right. Given the state of knowledge at the time, the potential hazards of this new technology needed to be carefully evaluated and a moratorium on the new technology was justified. A careful evaluation was performed, and the moratorium was lifted at the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in February of 1975. Scientists resumed their experiments, applying safeguards that they had agreed upon. Twenty years later, Paul Berg (then a Nobel Laureate) and Maxine Singer (another leading biologist) wrote a retrospective paper rightly concluding that the new technology had revolutionized biological science. Moreover, this had been achieved without any of the harmful effects that they had feared twenty years earlier. They wrote:
“Literally millions of experiments, many even inconceivable in 1975, have been carried out in the last 20 years without incident. No documented hazard to public health has been attributable to the applications of recombinant DNA technology. Moreover, the concern of some that moving DNA among species would breach customary breeding barriers and have profound effects on natural evolutionary processes has substantially disappeared as the science revealed that such exchanges occur in nature.”
Berg, P & Singer MF (1995) The recombinant DNA controversy: Twenty years later. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 92: 9011-9013
In the forty years that have passed since the letter in Science by Berg and his colleagues, our knowledge in genetics, plant and animal biology, and ecology has increased dramatically. Experimental procedures that were steps into the unknown in 1974 are now well understood, both chemically and in terms of their effects on the organism. We also have practical experience from using biotechnology on a large scale. About 12% of the world’s agricultural area is dedicated to genetically modified crops. Genetic modification, in agriculture and elsewhere, is no longer a new and untested technology. The uncertainties that justified the 1974 moratorium have been replaced by in-depth understanding of the technology, its mechanisms, and its consequences.
In spite of this, we still have a legislation that has its focus on the uncertainties that prevailed forty years ago, rather than those of today. This needs to be rectified. Today’s knowledge in genetics, plant biology, and ecology needs to be used to its fullest extent in the assessment of new crops and cultivars. We also need to use science to identify the uncertainties that we have in front us, so that we can focus on them rather than on those that we have behind us.
(First published in Mistra Biotech annual report 2013)