What can we learn from Asilomar?

Asilomar 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.


  1. You essentially propose writing a manual to explain the proper way to create organisms. As it becomes easier and easier to create organisms, people who do not read the manual will be in the creating game.
    I once kicked around a VBscript applet and created a virus that got past a virus checker and really enraged 20 of my closest friends. I was young and foolish then. What if I had done the same with a virus that did nothing more than make them have to take a sick day? It’s still a bad thing that is more difficult to recover from than a crashed computer.
    Furthermore, I once had some fun with a little code scrap that found a hole in the dominant operating system and could crash it. Nothing elegant, just a crash. Annoying as heck, but a power cycle brought the computer back up. What about someone that chooses to exploit a hole in the DNA of dogs, just to show off?
    I’m purposely avoiding nightmare scenarios because the low-level ones will be much more common. I believe there’s a reason radioactive materials are kept restricted. The potential for disaster, even if only on a minor scale, is significant. I fear biological tinkering should be restricted for the same reasons.
    We live in a world where our ethics have consistently failed to keep up with our technologies. When we can find a solution to end spam as we know it through better ethics, then I will believe that ethics can safeguard us from biological tinkering gone wrong.

  2. Talk about stopping DIYbio is essentially closing the barn door after the horse is already gone. From my perspective, the participants so far appear to be self-regulating, and the DIYbio community will probably police itself better than an outside agency could.
    With regards to Dean’s examples of malicious mischief- it’s a hell of a lot harder to create a virus than an applet. And I bet even when he was “young and foolish” he’d have thought twice about loosing a biological pathogen. You’d really have to want to make people sick, and then we are crossing into criminal activity which will not be stopped by regulations.

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