20.020 | Spring 2009 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Biological Engineering Design


PDP8 Recombinant DNA and Asilomar

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There are three short parts to this assignment. You should spend no more than 1 hour reading the assigned chapter by Charles Weiner, and then answering these questions.


Weiner, Charles. “Recombinant DNA, Policy, Asilomar.” In Encyclopedia of Ethical, Legal, and Policy Issues in Biotechnology. Edited by T. Murray and M. Mehlman. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 2000. ISBN: 9780471176121.

Part 1: What is Recombinant DNA?

To illustrate your understanding of genetic engineering techniques, describe how you might make the DNA that programs the GloFish as described at Wikipedia: Recombinant DNA.

GloFish genetically modified flourescent fish. (Public domain image.)

Call the gene for glowing “GFG” and the fish plasmid “pFP.”

Part 2: Key Events for Regulation of Experiments Involving Recombinant DNA

Concisely describe the relevance/importance of

  • 1973 Gordon Conference
  • 1974 Berg letters in Nature and Science
  • 1975 Conference in Asilomar
  • Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee

Part 3: Public Scrutiny of and Say in Research Decisions

Consider these three quotes and then

  • give your idea(s) about how to best engage the public in the scientific enterprise
  • comment on one author’s viewpoint or agenda, as best you can glean from the short quote
  • and finally say if you think the publication was an appropriate places to express that author’s viewpoint

Quote 1: from pg 910 of the Weiner chapter:

“The motive from the start was to avoid public interference and to demonstrate that the scientists on their own could protect laboratory workers, the public and the environment.”

Quote 2: from “Open Letter to the Asilomar Conference” written by Science for the People (PDF):

“There is little evidence that the technologies being discussed at this meeting arise from social or medical needs of large segments of the population. Rather, they represent specialized interests including those of the scientific community itself.”

Quote 3: from “Summary Statement of the Asilomar Conference” written by Paul Berg, et al., and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science:

“In the longer term, serious problems may arise in the large scale application of this methodology in industry, medicine and agriculture. But it was also recognized that further research and experience may show that many of the potential biohazards are less serious and/or less probable than we now suspect.”

Why are we doing this??

This homework assignment serves three important purposes for our class. First, it provides some context for our upcoming class viewing the video of the 1974 Cambridge City Council Hearings. These hearings enabled the citizens of Cambridge to directly address the scientists themselves and question the intent and efficacy of national safety guidelines for recombinant DNA work. The video was made available to us by Charles Weiner and it will be shown on Tuesday in class. Second, this chapter will give some timeline for the development of recombinant DNA technology itself as well as for the meetings and hearings that addressed its hazards. Finally, this chapter gives some insight into the polarizing viewpoints and biases inherent in many of the discussions associated with these issues.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2009
Learning Resource Types
Tutorial Videos
Lecture Notes
Projects with Examples