Public Reactions to the Genetic Code, 1961-1968

The news that Nirenberg's poly-U experiment had determined the first "word" of the genetic code became an international media event. In January 1962, for example, the Chicago Sun-Times announced that "No stronger proof of the universality of all life has been developed since Charles Darwin's 'The Origin of Species' demonstrated that all life is descended from one beginning. In the far future, the hope is that the hereditary lineup will be so well known that science may deal with the aberrations of DNA arrangements that produce cancer, aging, and other weaknesses of the flesh." Indeed, after even the earliest announcements about their work, Nirenberg and Matthaei received numerous letters from individuals who asked if uncovering the secrets of the genetic code would cure albinism and polio.

The public's response to "cracking" the genetic code built upon the momentum of American scientific research at the turn of the new decade. Barely a year before, President John F. Kennedy, in an optimistic speech at the 1960 Democratic Convention, introduced the concept of the "New Frontier" to the national vernacular. In December 1961, the New York Times reported on Nirenberg's discovery by explaining that "the science of biology has reached a new frontier," leading to "a revolution far greater in its potential significance than the atomic or hydrogen bomb." Even though deciphering the genetic code was an international effort, with contributing researchers in Britain, Germany, Japan, and the United States, Nirenberg's and Matthaei's success was cast as a triumph of the American scientific enterprise. Journalist John Pfeiffer asserted that the biggest news story of 1961 "was not the orbiting of the Russian astronauts. It was the cracking of a biological code, which governs all the processes of life, by Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei. This is just as big a breakthrough in biology as [Newton's discovery of gravitation in the seventeenth century] was in physics."

Work on the genetic code also captured the prominence of military and commercial applications of communication technology, especially computer networks, cybernetics, and robotics. A May 1962 article in the San Francisco Chronicle described the significance of Nirenberg's work in the high-tech language of automated factories and early punch-card computers. Explaining that the genetic code was universal, the Chronicle claimed, was "like discovering that IBM cards punched out by a French car factory can direct an automatic assembly line in Detroit to make cars very much like Renaults and Citroens." Such metaphors described how biomedical scientists had absorbed ideas from other domains into their own disciplines. Only a few years later, in 1969, NIH biochemist Martin Rodbell would coin the phrase "signal transduction" to describe the "GTP effect," the role played by proteins stimulated by guanosine triphosphate (GTP)in intercellular communication. The late historian Lily E. Kay described the parallels between molecular genetics and information theory in her work, Who Wrote the Book of Life?

Not everyone embraced the decoding breakthrough with hyperbolic enthusiasm. While the basic discovery--that messenger RNA does in fact exist--was universally applauded, some scientists expressed serious discomfort with the idea of exploiting information derived from the code. At the 1961 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, Dr. A. G. Steinberg of Case Western Reserve University predicted that knowledge gained from the genetic code "might well lead in the foreseeable future to a means of directing mutations and changing genes at will." That same year Arne Wilhelm Kaurin Tiselius, the 1948 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, asserted that knowledge of the genetic code could "lead to methods of tampering with life, of creating new diseases, of controlling minds, of influencing heredity, even perhaps in certain desired directions." In January 1962, Nirenberg half-joked about some of these responses in a letter to Francis Crick. "[T]he American press," explained Nirenberg, "has been saying that [my] work may result in (1) the cure of cancer and allied diseases (2) the cause of cancer and the end of mankind, and (3) a better knowledge of the molecular structure of God. Well, it's all in a day's work."

The complex ethical issues around the genetic code encouraged many scientists to speak out on the new potential of genetic engineering. In August 1967 Nirenberg published a now-famous editorial in Science entitled "Will Society Be Prepared?" that addressed the concerns raised by these molecular geneticists. Nirenberg contended that the impulse to exploit molecular genetics could only be kept in check by sobriety and caution. "When man," he argued, "becomes capable of instructing his own cells, he must refrain from doing so until he has sufficient wisdom to use this knowledge for the benefit of mankind.... [D]ecisions concerning the application of this knowledge must ultimately be made by society, and only an informed society can make such decisions wisely." In an unpublished draft of his Nobel acceptance speech, written in December 1968, Nirenberg also asserted that knowledge of the genetic code made it likely that "man eventually will ... influence his own biological evolution. One can predict that a new area of research will emerge during the next twenty-five years, that of molecular evolution, in which the effects of synthetic genes upon the economy of the cell will be explored in a systematic fashion."

Many of the fears expressed about the potential exploitation of the genetic code in the 1960s again emerged with the development of recombinant DNA technology in the early 1970s and in the 1980s. Nirenberg's colleague and fellow Nobel Laureate Christian Anfinsen echoed many of these sentiments in the early 1980s. In recent years, the controversies surrounding the Human Genome Project, embryonic stem cell research, genetically modified agricultural products, and human cloning have again transformed the climate in which genetics research takes place.