As you might guess, I write a lot about science for my job. And it’s always great fun to hear about all the newest findings – some of which appear to have the potential to be genuinely groundbreaking in their field. But I rarely stop to contemplate how science, like every other human endeavor, has a very real, very important history that echoes through the papers I write about today.
In today’s Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, Stanford geneticist Stanley N. Cohen, MD, reflects on his role, together with that of Herbert Boyer, PhD, (then at the University of California, San Francisco), in a series of events 40 years ago that led to the first instances of “DNA cloning” and an explosion in the fields of genetics, biotechnology and medicine.
The article is a fascinating read that clearly took a great deal of effort. When I asked Cohen why he felt it was important to accept the invitation to write such an article, here’s what he told me:
DNA cloning has now become such an integral part of the biological sciences that it is sometimes difficult for students and other young scientists to imagine that there was once uncertainty about whether genes could be propagated and cloned in a foreign host. The invitation from the PNAS provided an opportunity for me to write a first-person account of the science and events that led to successful DNA cloning 40 years ago. It also provided a format to explain the scientific logic underlying the crucial experiments, describe some of the personal interactions involved, and point out the scientific and political consequences of the findings. I’ve tried to combine my personal perspective with careful documentation of the history – while communicating the sense of scientific excitement that existed at the time. Not the least of my intents was to remind people – at a time when public support of basic research is decreasing – that the invention of DNA cloning, which has had important practical applications in addition to contributing to knowledge about the workings of genes and cells in health and disease, resulted from the pursuit of fundamental questions about biological phenomena.
I highly encourage scientists (and science writers!) at all stages of their careers to take a look. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of science in the early days of biotechnology, you should check out the Regional Oral History collection at U. C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, which includes interviews with Cohen and Boyer as well as Stanford’s Paul Berg, PhD, and Niels Reimers. Reimers founded Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing, which obtained the patent on the recombinant DNA technology.