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EMBO publishes statement on recombinant DNA technology

Almost as soon as recombinant research began to take off in the United States, one of the leading scientists in the field, Paul Berg of the University of Stanford, wrote a letter to the National Academy of Sciences in the United States calling for a moratorium on certain types of recombinant research until guidelines had been drawn up. It was published on 26 July 1974 in the journal Science. The fear was that recombinant organisms might escape into the environment, with unpredictable and possibly lethal effects. The upshot was an international conference held at Asilomar in California in February 1975. Along with members of the EMBO Council, former Executive Director of EMBO John Tooze was worried that unwarranted fear of recombinant organisms might lead to regulations that would make research all but impossible.


EMBO decided as a scientific organization - and many of the people involved wanted to do recombinant DNA experiments - that we should set up some kind of group to chip in to this debate. So the EMBO Recombinant DNA Committee was set up, and we met fairly frequently at Heathrow Airport… on a Saturday and a Sunday… What happened was a discussion of how risky it really was. We set up an experiment with Ken Murray, and it was published in Nature (1), putting polyoma [a tumour virus] in E. coli and sticking them in mice and seeing if the mice went down with polyoma. Ken Murray went to Porton Down and did the whole thing in full Category 3 containment. We came to the conclusion that the way NIH was going about it was just madness. Because our lot argued that the absolute safest way to study viral genomes is to have them in a plasmid in E. coli, either in whole genome or fragments of genome. And the most dangerous way is to have tubes of virions, because they've spent all their lives evolving to be infectious agents. And so you had this enormous security once they were cloned into E. coli.

John Tooze


In December 1977, Tooze travelled to Washington DC to put the EMBO view to the National Institutes of Health.

I stood up and said my piece about EMBO feeling, in particular with viruses, that the NIH rules were nonsense. Much to my surprise the NIH suggested that we hold a workshop in Britain to sort this out. On March 31st 1978 at Ascot, not far from the racecourse, we held a US/EMBO workshop specifically to discuss the risks of recombinant DNA with plant and animal viruses. To my knowledge it was the first time any organization like EMBO had held a meeting with NIH, based outside the 50 states of the US. I was quite stunned really. The Americans came anxious to use this as a way of dismantling where they'd got themselves. And once that happened, and it's accepted that it’s safer to study viral genomes in E. coli, then can it be really dangerous to study all the other genomes? So I think that was a turning point in the regulation of recombinant DNA research in terms of its potential as a biohazard.


John Tooze



The outcome was that the NIH drew back from demanding Level 3 containment for recombinant DNA research, and Tooze is in no doubt that the EMBO committee played a key role in influencing that decision.


Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.