Letter from Daniel Nathans to William F. Harrington
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1980-08-07 (August 7, 1980)
Harrington, William F.
Original Repository: Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives. Daniel Nathans Collection
Reproduced with permission of Joanne Nathans.
Restriction Enzymes and the "New Genetics," 1970-1980
Letter from Rebecca S. Eisenberg to Daniel Nathans (July 26, 1985)
August 7, 1980
I am responding to your question regarding JBC policy on accessibility of microorganisms described in Journal articles. It
seems to me there are two levels to consider: what is in the best interests of science, and, if that can be settled, what
can the JBC effectively do to promote those interests. I guess that nearly everyone would agree that total availability of
microbial strains described in publications is likely to advance science, not only by facilitating confirmation of reported
results, but more importantly, by facilitating new experiments, some of which may not occur to the original author. On the
other hand, first rate science is carried out by individuals of varying temperament, including those who get satisfaction
from long term development of a problem, which may involve novel and laborious construction of new strains of mutant or recombinant
microbes essential for their work. In the case of molecular cloning of DNA, creative labor often goes toward constructing
special vectors, or strains carrying particular genes or synthetic DNA. Some of these individuals may want to limit distribution
of strains that were difficult to construct or especially important for their future work. Add to this an increasing number
of recombinants with potential commercial value and you have a widespread interest in controlling the availability of new
strains. (What effect the recent patent decision will have on this I don't know.) Nonetheless, I strongly believe it is
desirable to have mutants or recombinants freely available once they have been reported in the literature. Others should not
have to start at the beginning to produce the same recombinant plasmid or to isolate the same mutant. But is it desirable
to coerce people into giving out their materials? I don't think so. Moreover, I don't believe it is possible to do
so, at least not without great harm to the free-wheeling individualism essential to creative science. Except for encouraging
what is desirable, I think we ought to leave these transactions to the parties concerned. Perhaps if the situation gets worse
that it now is, I'll change my mind.
In all of the foregoing I do not include new isolates from nature of microbes or tissue culture cells, which would be absolutely
required to repeat the research described in a published paper. Here I believe the principle of verifiability of research
results operates, and there should be a clear obligation to make such isolates available.
From these general considerations I would suggest a JBC policy that 1) encourages authors to make all new mutants or recombinant
organisms described in their reports available to others and 2) requires that natural isolates of organisms or cultured cells
described in a publication be deposited in a culture collection or be made available to interested investigators, the guiding
principle being the possibility of verifying the authors' results. As to "how, precisely, the text [of the policy
statement] should be changed", I suggest the following:
In regard to microorganisms or tissue culture strains referred to in a manuscript, the policy of the Journal is based on the
principle that published results must be verifiable. Therefore, organisms or cells should be identified by an appropriate
culture collection number or by reference to an earlier publication characterizing the strains used. In the case of new isolates
from nature, or isolates previously reported but not included in a culture collection, it is understood that the authors will
make the strains available to interested investigators on request. The Journal also encourages authors to make available to
other investigators any laboratory-derived mutants or recombinant organisms referred to in their manuscript.
Please call me if you want to discuss this issue further. Good luck.