Like Paul Berg, Singer criticized Sinsheimer for undertaking what Singer and Berg considered recombinant DNA experiments in
his laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, while at the same time dismissing the recently-issued NIH guidelines
on rDNA research as inadequate and calling for broader restrictions on the new technology. Their exchange expressed the uncertainties
over the environmental and health safety of recombinant DNA research at a time when there was little empirical data on hand
and regulation had to be based on an assessment of risk.
Number of Image Pages:
2 (138,727 Bytes)
1977-01-07 (January 7, 1977)
Sinsheimer, Robert L.
California Institute of Technology
Original Repository: Library of Congress. Maxine Singer Papers
Reproduced with permission of the Library of Congress.
Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
Risk, Regulation, and Scientific Citizenship: The Controversy over Recombinant DNA Research
A Statement (December 20, 1976)
Letter from Paul Berg to Robert L. Sinsheimer (December 30, 1976)
You may remember that just before the beginning of the SIPI Congressional briefing on December 14 we talked for a while. I
told you that I had heard that some recombination experiments were being conducted in your lab. You then told me about your
interest in "nif" genes. As I recall the conversation, you indicated that you were taking, or were planning to take,
"nif" genes from E. coli cells into which they had been transferred (by "natural" processes, not by recombinant
DNA techniques) and insert them by recombinant DNA techniques in more convenient E. coli vectors. You also indicated an interest
in using these materials, in the future, in connection with crown gall tumor. Our conversation was cut short by others, and
by the Briefing itself.
Two days later I left for a long holiday. During that time I thought about our conversation, particularly in reference to
the public statements that you have made regarding the Guidelines and recombinant DNA experiments. And I concluded that, at
least in my view, your two activities, namely the experiments and your aggressive actions in opposition to the Guidelines,
Upon my return, therefore, I read your December 20 "statement" with some interest, and finally with surprise and no
You state that it is "alleged" that you are engaged in recombinant DNA research. But the statement itself and the
experiments you described to me indicate that you are in fact doing so. The Guidelines do have specific recommendations for
experiments involving DNA frog species that exchange genes in nature. And certainly, while the recommended containment is
in general low, specific requirements do exist, especially when the "foreign" DNA may not be totally innocuous. The
"nif" genes could hardly be considered without potential harm; indeed many of our colleagues have worried very specifically
about the possible effects of such genes, in the context of recombinant DNA experiments. Further, problems that may arise
from the use of Agrobacterium II tumefaciens have been discussed and are specifically referred to in the Guidelines. Although
you indicate in the "statement" that the latter experiments will be done under full containment, I am troubled by
your position on this matter. If you feel so strongly that the Guidelines are inadequate that you are impelled to undertake
the nationwide campaign you have been conducting, how can you personally undertake experiments you believe to be potentially
so terribly harmful? You must certainly realize that your statements and published articles can only be weakened in their
influence on others by your activities. For me personally, my previous total belief in your sincerity has been seriously shaken.
The obligation I felt to consider carefully your arguments has been undermined.
I do distinguish between your personal activities and your unwillingness to impose your views on colleagues at Cal Tech and
I understand your "statement" in that regard. But again there are important inconsistencies. I think it is important
that you realize that your public activities have in fact interfered most dramatically with the ability of colleagues in other
institutions to proceed with "legal" work, within the Guidelines. For example, the influence of your position on the
Mayor and City Council of Cambridge, and the Friends of the Earth cannot be denied. It is both direct, and indirect, in that
others have exploited your statements and your distinguished reputation.
Finally, I would point out to you that those who are suspicious of the honesty and motives of scientists and of science anyway
will see support for their suspicions in this situation. This will surely increase the difficulties in our efforts to deal
rationally and openly with the problems raised by research.