I agree that new mutational technologies such as gene editing and gain-of-function research call for public debate, global engagement and broad evaluation by experts so that policy-makers are properly informed (see Nature 521, 5; 2015).

The degree of experimental freedom in research is not the only thing at stake, however. At issue is public trust in the institution of science itself. Similar policy challenges arose when recombinant DNA technology was first developed, which led to safety guidelines being drawn up at the 1975 US Asilomar conference.

An international set of such conferences is now needed to assess the potential risks associated with the latest DNA technologies and to develop a common understanding of where lines should be drawn (see also E. Lanphier et al. Nature 519, 410–411 (2015) and D. Baltimore et al. Science 348, 36–38 (2015)).

The original Asilomar meeting failed to engage the public in discussions, which we now know is crucial to the regulatory decision-making process. Had it done so, the resulting guidelines on recombinant DNA might have extended to legislation covering all users — including the military and commercial sectors — and not just those funded by the US National Institutes of Health.