Viewpoint | Published:

Gain-of-function experiments: time for a real debate

Nature Reviews Microbiology volume 13, pages 5864 (2015) | Download Citation


According to the WHO, dual use research of concern (DURC) is “life sciences research that is intended for benefit, but which might easily be misapplied to do harm”. Recent studies, particularly those on influenza viruses, have led to renewed attention on DURC, as there is an ongoing debate over whether the benefits of gain-of-function (GOF) experiments that result in an increase in the transmission and/or pathogenicity of potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs) are outweighed by concerns over biosecurity and biosafety. In this Viewpoint article, proponents and opponents of GOF experiments discuss the benefits and risks associated with these studies, as well as the implications of the current debate for the scientific community and the general public, and suggest how the current discussion should move forward.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from $8.99

All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    et al. Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets, Nature 486, 420–428 (2012).

  2. 2.

    et al. Airborne transmission of influenza A/H5N1 virus between ferrets, Science 336, 1534–1541 (2012).

  3. 3.

    et al. MicroRNA-based strategy to mitigate the risk of gain-of-function influenza studies, Nature Biotechnol. 31, 844–847 (2013).

  4. 4.

    & Ethical alternatives to experiments with novel potential pandemic pathogens. PLoS Med. 11, e1001646 (2014).

  5. 5.

    Can limited scientific value of potential pandemic pathogen experiments justify the risks? MBio. 5, 5 (2014).

  6. 6.

    et al. CD46 in meningococcal disease. Science 301, 373–375 (2003).

  7. 7.

    , & Monitoring select agent theft, loss and release reports in the United States — 2004–2010. Appl. Biosafety 18, 171–180 (2012).

  8. 8.

    Moratorium on risky virology studies leaves work at 14 institutions in limbo. ScienceInsider , (2014).

  9. 9.

    The increasingly compelling moral responsibilities of life scientists. Hastings Center Rep. 43, 34–35 (2013).

  10. 10.

    “Inconvenient Truths” in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and public health. J. Infect. Dis. 209, 170–172 (2014).

  11. 11.

    Panel on Scientific Communication and National Security, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine. Scientific Communication and National Security (The National Academies Press, 1982).

  12. 12.

    , & The apocalypse as a rhetorical device in the influenza virus gain-of-function debate. MBio. 5, e02062–14 (2014).

  13. 13.

    , & An epistemological perspective on the value of gain-of-function experiments involving pathogens with pandemic potential. MBio. 5, e01875–e01814 (2014).

  14. 14.

    & Risks and benefits of gain-of-function experiments with pathogens of pandemic potential, such as influenza virus: a call for a science-based discussion. MBio. 5, e01730–e01714 (2014).

  15. 15.

    Tiptoeing around Pandora's Box. Science 305, 594–595 (2004).

  16. 16.

    et al. Regulating gene drives. Science 345, 626–628 (2014).

Download references

Author information


  1. Boston University School of Medicine and the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), Boston, Massachusetts 02118, USA.

    • W. Paul Duprex
  2. Department of Viroscience of Erasmus MC Rotterdam, 3015 GE Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

    • Ron A. M. Fouchier
  3. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA.

    • Michael J. Imperiale
  4. Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, Department of Epidemiology and Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.

    • Marc Lipsitch
  5. Departments of Medicine, and of Microbiology and Immunology, and the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, California 94305, USA; and at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, Palo Alto, California 94304, USA.

    • David A. Relman


  1. Search for W. Paul Duprex in:

  2. Search for Ron A. M. Fouchier in:

  3. Search for Michael J. Imperiale in:

  4. Search for Marc Lipsitch in:

  5. Search for David A. Relman in:

Competing interests

W.P.D., M.J.I. and D.A.R. declare no competing interests. R.A.M.F. receives research support for gain-of-function research from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the European Union. M.L. receives research funding for pneumococcal vaccine modelling projects from PATH Vaccine Solutions and Pfizer.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to W. Paul Duprex or Ron A. M. Fouchier or Michael J. Imperiale or Marc Lipsitch or David A. Relman.

About this article

Publication history