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Suggesting 'The Book of Man' at the Asilomar Conference 1975


My predictions of synthesising at the Ashby commission
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I think it was August 1974... September, I received a letter from the secretary of the MRC [Medical Research Council] enjoining me not to do any of these experiments because of the moratorium which was very easy to obey, because I suddenly realised the great merit of something I had discovered very early, which is the difference between chastity and impotence. So we didn't have to be chaste, we were impotent to do anything. So of course we could agree to the moratorium immediately. But I could see that in fact this, this needed to be got into... into the work. However, we lived in a time now where these things had to be handled very carefully. In this country we set up the Ashby Commission, and I gave evidence to the Ashby Commission and I had the chance to look at my evidence again a few months ago, because I felt quite certain that I'd remembered saying something which people denied, but of course it is there. What I predicted they... nobody would cloning all these genes, they would be synthesising them. And I predicted that in fact people would synthesise the gene for insulin. And the gene for insulin would be put into a plasmid and that would be produced as a thing. Now that was pooh-poohed at the time, because you see, it raised the question which no one was willing to ask about, was if a... if your gene carries the danger from the organism that it comes from, what the hell is an insulin gene, a synthetic insulin gene? It's a piece of chemistry. So you have to dissociate the biology in that case from what you're talking about.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Medical Research Council

Duration: 2 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010