Back in the 1970s the awesome news that scientists had learned how to redesign genes started a regulatory flurry. Distinguished panels met to ask imponderable questions. Could some human-created form of life carry self-multiplying havoc into the world? How can we prevent such a disaster?

Image: Courtesy DOE Human Genome Project.

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Back then genetic escapes were considered so likely that gene-splicing research was carried out in sealed labs. The citizens of Cambridge, Mass., home of Harvard and MIT, forbade such labs within their city limits. Congress debated dozens of bills to regulate genetic engineering.

Then, suddenly, the concern disappeared. Genetic engineering became routine in academia and a hot field of competition in business. Nowadays scientists and corporations create gene-spliced organisms and release them into nature with astoundingly little oversight.

I always wondered how that happened. It’s not as if the serious questions about “genetic pollution” were ever answered. Our ignorance of the health and ecological and evolutionary impacts of gene-spliced crops and other products is still enormous. But somehow the biotech enterprise got a social and regulatory green light. No questions asked. Full speed ahead.

Why? How? When?

A partial answer to that question has appeared in the July issue of GeneWatch, the bulletin of the Council for Responsible Genetics. Susan Wright, a science historian at the University of Michigan, writes about an MIT archive in which she found the transcript of a fateful meeting that took place in 1976 at the National Institutes of Health.

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Then, as now, the greatest area of concern was microbes. Higher organisms carry their DNA around in discrete packages inside cell nuclei. They release genes into the world only under relatively controlled acts of reproduction. Bacteria and viruses, on the other hand, slosh genes around in a shockingly messy way. They pick them up and drop them off, shuffle them, trade them, insert them into the supposedly organized genomes of higher forms of life. That’s how viruses infect us. It’s also one of the ways geneticists paste genes from one kind of critter into another. First they insert a snipped-out gene, from a flounder, say, into a virus or bacterium. Then they use the microbe to smuggle the flounder gene into, say, a salmon or a tomato.

The problem is that once the gene has been loosened from the organized flounder into the disorganized microbial world, there’s no telling where it might end up. One single-celled creature could pass it to another. For all we know, it could end up in a minnow or a whale or in our own guts.

In 1976 an august committee of NIH virologists was asked to test this danger. They were to snip out from a virus a gene that causes tumors when the virus infects mice. They were to paste that gene into bacteria and then see whether the bacteria could cause tumors in other animals. If so, it would not only be evidence that some kinds of gene-splicing might turn cancer into a communicable disease, it would also be evidence that genes unleashed into microbes could spread beyond anyone’s recall.

The committee debated what kind of bacteria to use in the test. Scientifically the answer was obvious; you seek out the worst case. You use bacteria likely to thrive and infect the test animals. But the virologists had more than science in mind. They worried about politics, about public controversy, about their own work being regulated. So they chose to use weakened bacteria that were unlikely to do harm.

In short, they fudged the test. Here are some of the things they said, recorded in the transcript of the meeting. “By using known pathogens, it seems to me we go politically in the wrong direction even though scientifically it does make more sense.” “If we want to get these experiments done so we can go about our work quickly, maybe one shouldn’t introduce problems of this level.” “It’s molecular politics, not molecular biology, and I think we have to consider both, because a lot of science is at stake.”

They wanted “a slick New York Times kind of experiment.” But even the weakened bacteria they ended up using did infect some test animals with tumors. That result, says Wright, “had the NIH campus buzzing at the time.”

So they fudged again. The disturbing results were never published in a major journal. To the contrary, a 1979 NIH press conference announced that “this form of research is perfectly safe.” The New York Times reported that “the risks are considerably less than had been feared.” All through the 1980s and 90s, this study was cited as evidence that bioengineering poses no threats. Only in 1988, at a meeting of federal regulators, did one of them honestly articulate our government’s actual policy: “If the American public wants progress, they will have to be guinea pigs.”

Next time you hear a scientist asserting that gene splicing is safe, remind yourself that there is no scientific evidence for that statement. We are profoundly ignorant about what we are doing to the code that generates all life. And unfortunately some scientists, including those entrusted with public safety, are willing to lie.