Maxine Singer

Maxine Singer (born 1931) is an advocate of the controversial use of DNA to alter genetic characteristics. She also researches cures for diseases related to genetics.

Maxine Singer, a leading scientist in the field of human genetics, is also a staunch advocate of responsible use of biochemical genetics research. During the height of the controversy over the use of recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques to alter genetic characteristics, she advocated a cautious approach. She helped develop guidelines to balance calls for unfettered genetics research as a means of making medically valuable discoveries with demands for restrictions on research to protect the public from possible harm. After the DNA controversy waned, Singer continued to contribute to the field of genetics, researching cures for cancer, hemophilia, and other diseases related to genetics.

Singer was born on February 15, 1931, in New York City, to Hyman Frank, an attorney, and Henrietta (Perlowitz) Frank, a hospital admissions officer, children's camp director, and model. Singer received her B.A. from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1952, and earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Yale in 1957. From 1956 to 1958 she worked as a U.S. Public Health Service postdoctoral fellow at National Institute for Arthritis, Metabolism and Digestive Diseases (NIAMD), National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda, Maryland. She then became a research chemist on the staff of the section on enzymes and cellular biochemistry from 1958 to 1974. There she conducted DNA research on tumor-causing viruses as well as on ribonucleic acid (RNA). In the early 1970s, Singer also served as a visiting scientist with the Department of Genetics of the Weizman Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

While Singer was working at NIH, scientists learned how to take DNA fragments from one organism and insert them into the living cells of another. This "recombinant DNA" could direct the production of proteins in the foreign organism as if the DNA was still in its original home. This technique had the potential of creating completely new types of organisms. On one hand, the new research brought unprecedented opportunities to discover cures for serious diseases, to develop new crops, and otherwise to benefit humanity. Yet the prospect of creating as-yet-unknown life forms, some possibly hazardous, was frightening to many.

In 1972, one of Singer's colleagues and personal friends Paul Berg of Stanford University was the first to create recombinant DNA molecules. He later voluntarily stopped conducting related experiments involving DNA manipulation in the genes of tumor-causing viruses because of some scientists' fears that a virus of unknown properties might escape from the laboratory and spread into the general population.

Although Berg's self-restraint was significant, the catalyst for the debate over gene-splicing was the 1973 Gordon Conference, an annual high-level research meeting. Singer, who was co-chair of the event, was approached by several nucleic acid scientists with the suggestion that the conference include consideration of safety issues. Singer agreed. She opened the discussion with an acknowledgment that DNA manipulation could assist in combatting health problems, yet such experimentation brought to bear a number of moral and ethical concerns.

The scientists present decided, by ballot, to send a public letter about the safety risks of recombinant DNA research to the president of the National Academy of Sciences, and asked Science magazine to publish it. Singer and her co-chair, Dieter Söll of Yale University, wrote the letter warning that organisms of an unpredictable nature could result from the new technique, and suggested that the National Academy of Sciences study the problem and recommend guidelines. Concern generated by this letter led to another meeting at the Asilomer Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California, where a debate ensued. Such proceedings—to consider the ethical issues arising from the new DNA research—were unprecedented in the scientific community. Immediately after the Asilomer Conference concluded, a NIH committee began formulating guidelines for recombinant DNA research.

In helping develop the guidelines, Singer advocated a careful analytic approach. In 1976, she presented four principles to the committee to be used in drafting the guidelines. She advised that certain experiments posed such serious hazards that they should be banned altogether; that experiments with lesser or no potential hazards should be permitted if their benefits are unobtainable through conventional methods and if they are properly safeguarded; that the more risk in an experiment, the stricter the safeguards should be; and that the guidelines should be reviewed annually.

Singer provided a calm voice of reason throughout the public debate over gene-splicing that followed. Committees of lay people, such as the Coalition for Responsible Genetic Research, held demonstrations calling for a complete ban on recombinant DNA research. Some members of the media made analogies to the nightmarish vision contained in Aldous Huxley's book Brave New World, which described a genetically altered society. When sent to address a public forum on the issue in 1977, for example, Singer responded to accusations that scientists ignore public concerns. As Clifford Grobstein recounted in his book, A Double Image of the Double Helix: The Recombinant-DNA Debate, Singer maintained that "scientists recognize their responsibility to the public … (but) dispute over the best way to exercise responsibility must not be confused with the negation of it." According to Grobstein, Singer explained that "while freedom of inquiry is a democratic right, it is clearly unacceptable to cause harm in the name of research. But [Singer] warned that levels of anxiety are not necessarily directly related to levels of real risk."

During her career, Singer has also served on the editorial Board of Science magazine and has contributed numerous articles. In her writing for that publication about recombinant DNA research, she stressed the benefits to humanity that recombinant DNA techniques could bring, especially in increasing the understanding of serious and incurable disease. After the NIH guidelines were implemented, she told Science readers that "under the Guidelines work has proceeded safely and research accomplishments have been spectacular." By 1980, when public near-hysteria had waned, Singer called for a "celebration" of the progress in molecular genetics. In Science she wrote: "The manufacture of important biological agents like insulin and interferon by recombinant DNA procedures," as well as the failure of any "novel hazards" to emerge, was evidence of the value of the cautious continuation of DNA research.

In 1974, Singer accepted a new position at NIH as chief of the Section of Nucleic Acid Enzymology, Division of Cancer Biology and Diagnosis (DCBD) at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. In 1980 she became chief of the DCBD's Laboratory of Biochemistry. She held this post until 1988, when she became president of the Carnegie Institution, a highly regarded research organization in Washington, D.C. Singer remains affiliated with the National Cancer Institute, however, as scientist emeritus, where she continues her research in human genetics.

In addition to her laboratory research, Singer has devoted considerable time and energy to other scientific and professional pursuits. In 1981, she taught in the biochemistry department at the University of California at Berkeley. A skilled and prolific writer, she has issued more than one hundred books, articles, and papers. Most are highly technical, including numerous articles published in scientific journals. Singer also compiled a graduate-level textbook with Paul Berg on molecular genetics called Genes and Genomes: A Changing Perspective. Reviewers gave the work high praise for its clear presentation of difficult concepts. Marcelo Bento Soares in Bioscience also commented that the book was "superbly written" and "magnificently captures the sense of discovery, understanding, and anticipation that has followed the so-called recombinant DNA breakthrough."

Singer has also written extensively on less technical aspects of science. She and Berg authored a book for laypeople on genetic engineering, and she continued to promote the benefits of recombinant DNA techniques and battle public suspicion and fear long after the controversy peaked in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, for example, Singer issued an article encouraging the public to try the first genetically engineered food to reach American supermarket shelves. In describing the harmlessness of the "Flavr Savr" tomato, she decried public objections that eating it was dangerous, unnatural, or immoral to readers of the Asbury Park Press. Pointing out that "almost all the foods we eat are the product of previous genetic engineering by cross-breeding," Singer said that the small amount of extra DNA in the tomato would be destroyed in the digestive tract, and that people already consume the DNA present in the other foods in their diets. Moreover, she said the decision to eat a genetically altered tomato did not reduce her admiration for nature's creations.

In addition to her writing and lecturing, Singer has served on numerous advisory boards in the United States and abroad, including science institutes in Naples, Italy, Bangkok, Thailand, and Rehovot, Israel. She also has served on an advisory board to the Pope and as a consultant to the Committee on Human Values of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. She worked on a Yale committee that investigated the university's South African investments, and serves on Johnson and Johnson's Board of Directors. Concerned about the quality of science education in the United States, she started First Light, a science program for inner-city children.

Singer travels extensively and maintains long work weeks to accommodate all her activities. She married Daniel Singer in 1952; the couple have four children: Amy Elizabeth, Ellen Ruth, David Byrd, and Stephanie Frank. Singer is the recipient of more than forty honors and awards, including some ten honorary doctor of science degrees and numerous commendations from NIH.

Further Reading on Maxine Singer

Grobstein, Clifford, A Double Image of the Double Helix: The Recombinant-DNA Debate, W. H. Freeman and Company, 1979, pp. 18-19, 72-73.

Krimsky, Sheldon, Genetic Alchemy: The Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy, MIT Press, 1982, pp. 181-183.

Lappé, Marc, Broken Code: The Exploitation of DNA, Sierra Club Books, 1984, pp. 19-25.

Soares, Marcelo Bento, Bioscience, March, 1992, p. 211.

Singer, Maxine F., Curriculum Vitae, current as of August, 1993. Interview with Donna Olshansky, conducted August 19, 1993.