Skip to main content

Biological Containment


BIOLOGICAL CONTAINMENT, an effort to investigate the hazards of, and develop containment standards for, genetic engineering research. In 1975, three years after the first successful in vitro transfer of bacterial genes into a mammalian virus ushered in the age of recombinant DNA, scientists gathered at an international meeting at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California, to explore the implications of the discovery. What has become known as the recombinant DNA (rDNA) controversy arose soon after in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the city established a citizen review board to assess whether the guidelines issued in 1976 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were sufficient to protect public health. The city established a moratorium on certain classes of rDNA research during the period its board investigated the new research techniques. As an out-growth of the panel's findings, Cambridge in 1977 passed the first ordinance regulating genetics research in the United States. It set up a municipal biohazard committee to oversee rDNA activities, made NIH guidelines mandatory for all research and development in the city, whether publicly or privately funded, and established procedures for laboratory surveillance of biological hazards.

Between 1976 and 1980 the NIH relaxed its guidelines significantly. Public concern shifted from laboratory safety to the containment and safety standards of commercially developed genetically modified organisms, primarily in the form of genetically modified plants and microorganisms for agriculture, food production, mining, and bioremediation. Without new legislation for products of biotechnology, Congress urged federal agencies to use existing statutes, mostly dedicated to regulation of chemical products. Agencies began developing rules for large-scale fermentation, field tests, and the intentional release of transgenic organisms into the environment.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for rules governing the introduction of genetically modified plant species into the environment to minimize the creation of new plant pests or dissemination of weeds. Since 1985, hundreds of transgenic plant species have been approved for field tests. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for regulating biological pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972), as well as all other releases of bioengineered products other than plants under the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976). The first bioengineered microorganism approved for field testing by the EPA, on 5 December 1985, was ice minus, a genetically modified strain of a soil bacterium, Pseudomonas syringae, which reduces frost damage on certain crops.

Safety requirements for releasing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment must take into consideration whether the GMOs will spread beyond designated areas, whether they will transfer genes to other organisms, and whether they will turn safe organisms into plant pests or into organisms that overwhelm indigenous species. Much of the scientific debate over bioengineered organisms and their containment has centered on the relevance to risk of how an organism is modified, the analogy between the release of nonindigenous species and bioengineered organisms, and whether ecological assessment can lessen the hazards of environmental releases of GMOs. Much of the social protest related to GMOs, particularly in the 1990s, centered around such issues as requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods, replacing voluntary safety testing of new products by the industries producing them with mandatory safety testing by independent research groups, and developing liability standards for contamination and unforeseen damage to public health or the environment.


Grobstein, Clifford. A Double Image of the Double Helix: The Recombinant-DNA Debate. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1979.

Krimsky, Sheldon. Genetic Alchemy: The Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982.

———. Biotechnics and Society: The Rise of Industrial Genetics. New York: Praeger, 1991.

National Research Council (U.S.). Field Testing Genetically Modified Organisms: Framework for Decisions. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989.

SheldonKrimsky/c. w.

See alsoBiochemistry ; Genetic Engineering ; Microbiology .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Biological Containment." Dictionary of American History. . 25 Mar. 2019 <>.

"Biological Containment." Dictionary of American History. . (March 25, 2019).

"Biological Containment." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved March 25, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.