WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF: Scientists have discovered the Genesis Engine, a technology that gives them the keys to the Code of Life.
Spiny grass and scraggly pines creep amid the arts and crafts buildings of the Asilomar Conference Grounds, 100 acres of dune where California’s Monterey Peninsula hammerheads into the Pacific. It’s a rugged landscape, designed to inspire people to contemplate their evolving place on Earth. So it was natural that 140 scientists gathered here in 1975 for an unprecedented conference.
They were worried about what people called “recombinant DNA,” the manipulation of the source code of life. It had been just 22 years since James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin described what DNA was—deoxyribonucleic acid, four different structures called bases stuck to a backbone of sugar and phosphate, in sequences thousands of bases long. DNA is what genes are made of and genes are the basis of heredity.
Preeminent genetic researchers like David Baltimore, then at MIT, went to Asilomar to grapple with the implications of being able to decrypt and reorder genes. It was a God like power – to plug genes from one living thing into another. Used wisely, it had the potential to save millions of lives but the scientists also knew their creations might slip out of their control so they wanted to consider what ought to be off limits.