There was a flurry of indignation recently on the DIYbio discussion group over an article in the Wall Street Journal over the safety of bio hackers (with added aggravation from Fox News' dramatic title to the exact same article).
Interestingly, this kind of alarm is not new, especially to biology. In the early days of molecular biology, there was a sudden panic that recombinant DNA was inherently unsafe. There was no basis to understand what was possible, what was ethically permissible, and what was unsafe.
In a landmark event, that went on to change the nature of science policy and public outreach, Maxine Singer and Paul Berg, pioneers in molecular biology, assembled about 140 scientist, lawyers, and politicians to discuss the future of recombinant DNA.
The Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, named after the place it was held at, addressed the principles for safely conducting recombinant DNA experiments, listing potential risks and outlining containment principles. The discussions also involved assessment of organisms, principles for choosing bacterial hosts, and what constituted good microbial practices. And finally, it explored the need for proper education and training of research personnel to carry out the recommendations that came out of the discussions.
There were a few interesting, non-science, aspects to this conference, as well. There was a desire to be transparent in the discussion and involve the public, to allay any fears non-scientists might have. Also, the Asilomar scientists drew up a series of voluntary guidelines rather than a regulatory body.
What can we learn?
Asilomar is part of the culture and history of any molecular biologist (at least it was for me, I learned about it early in my career). Therefore, the precautionary thinking, the openness and public discourse, and the self-organizing regulation is part of molecular biology.
DIY biology is part of all this, and the same culture is part of a community that already is a cautious as it is curious and open. I am not sure if there's a need for an Asilomar for DIYbio, but with calls for licensing and calls from the FBI, clearly something definitive needs to be established.
It's been great to see the discussions around this by the DIYbio enthusiasts. They clearly understand the situation, now it's a matter of getting the message across.
Image from MIT archives.