When Herbert Boyer of the University of California and Stanley Cohen of Stanford University found a way to recombine DNA molecules in test tubes using restriction enzymes,1 they crossed the ultimate milestone in genetic engineering in the early 1970s. They also set the stage for a firestorm of controversy. Scientists and nonscientists feared that the new technology could be used to create hazardous biological materials. Could, for example, pathogenic genes cloned into E.coli plasmids transform the frequently manipulated bacteria into a dangerous vector with the ability to transmit cancer?

Such concerns prompted a voluntary and widely accepted moratorium on recombinant DNA research.2 And that moratorium spurred a now-famous February 1975 National Academy of Sciences meeting at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, Calif. Called the Conference on Recombinant DNA, or, more commonly, the Asilomar Conference, the event has been written about and analyzed extensively.3,4 Scientists, journalists,...

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