Recombinant DNA: history and current requirements

The cloning and introduction of foreign genes into new hosts is so integral to life-sciences research that it is almost unimaginable to conceive of a time when so much apprehension surrounded this technology that scientists, in 1971, implemented a moratorium on such activities.  But it did happen and not that long ago, at least for some of us.

In 1975, researchers, physicians, lawyers, and representatives form the NIH, convened in Asilomar, California to address the implications of the new technology.  Out of this meeting came the NIH’s Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee which authored and continues to update the NIH Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules.  For a description of this unprecedented exercise in self-regulation and to see just how much the collective approach to this field has evolved, see:, just one of many histories on the topic.

And even though high school kids are now doing work that would have been considered groundbreaking (and perhaps even too dangerous to contemplate) back in 1971, the Guidelines are still very much in effect.  A few things you should know about them:

  • They are not “Guidelines”-they are rules that apply to all rDNA activities, regardless of the funding source.
  • The NIH’s risk assessment criteria for most viral vectors are quite conservative regarding  ‘replication deficiency’, requiring the same hazard assumptions as if wild type virus were being used along with the commensurate safety requirements. 
  • All activities using rDNA must be described in a submittal to the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC).  The NIH defines a category of ‘exempt’ (from submission requirements) activities, but this category is narrower than most people assume and investigators must, at a minimum, submit an initial application for the IBC to make this determination.

As the NIH has initiated site surveys to check institutional compliance, this would be a good time to make sure that your lab is up to date on its rDNA submittal(s).  To submit to the IBC: 

    Will Your Eye Wash Be Ready When You NEED It?


    Many laboratories have an eye wash attached to the faucet and you have probably heard us tell you to run the water at least weekly to confirm adequate flow. There is another thing to keep in mind:  After you use the eye wash, DO NOT force the red caps down too tightly.  Otherwise, they may not pop off when the eyewash is activated resulting in inadequate water flow when you need it. If you believe you need an eye wash in your work area, contact EH&S.

    Laboratory Vacating Procedures

    Researchers vacating or relocating laboratories within the University must contact EH&S for assistance with clearance of their space. All chemical, biological, radiological and any other hazardous materials must be removed and any unwanted chemicals must be disposed through EH&S by filling out the chemical waste pick up form on our website ( Contamination-prone work surfaces and equipment - e.g. fume hoods, refrigerators, freezers -  must be decontaminated before moving or disposal.  The ultimate responsibility for leaving any work space suitable for re-occupancy or renovation lies with the Principal Investigator to whom the laboratory was assigned. For Vacating Procedures, see:

    Hope You Came To See Us

    This past April, EH&S held its first Open Lab Forum in the Chemistry Department and another one in May in Biology.  The Forum is designed for the lab personnel to come and speak with the EH&S team in a relaxed, informal setting about whatever they want. During the Forum, EH&S fielded questions on glass disposal, proper chemical management, solvent recovery and the Chemical Tracking System. By having an open, friendly dialogue with the labs, EH&S gained a better idea of researchers’ concerns and their perspective on safety issues and programs in their department.  This forum provided us with many new ideas to improve our programs and relationships with the labs and we look forward to incorporating them in the future.  EH&S is planning on holding these forums for other department as well another for Chemistry in the near future.  Watch for our flyers and check our website to see when we will be holding one for your department.  We look forward to seeing you there....any by the way, we serve refreshments.

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