A candid conversation with veterinarian Ralph Brinster, 'Father of Transgenesis'

A candid conversation with veterinarian Ralph Brinster, 'Father of Transgenesis'

Penn researcher shares insights of 50 years studying mammalian germ line.
Nov 01, 2012

For the past five decades, Ralph Brinster, VMD, PhD, Richard King Mellon Professor of Reproductive Physiology at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, has been working on furthering our understanding of the mammalian germ line. During that time, he helped forge the path that today's biologists—including those working on transgenics and stem cell research—are following.

Ralph Brinster, VMD, PhD
Brinster was recently recognized for his 50 years of dedicated service as a faculty member in the Department of Animal Biology. The university and school held a two-day symposium in his honor, and research scientists from around the world participated. Michael Brown, a Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, presented the keynote lecture at the symposium.

Brinster is often referred to as the "Father of Transgenesis," the study of the experimental transfer of individual genes or DNA into the germ line of an animal, which then transmits the genetic alteration to offspring and successive generations. Many may remember the famous Nature cover story of 1982 that showed a normal-sized white mouse being dwarfed by his giant mouse sibling. That was Brinster's work, along with his colleague Richard Palmiter of the University of Washington. Through painstaking experimentation, during which they inserted new genes into the germ line, Brinster and Palmiter demonstrated, in a dramatic and unequivocal manner, the true promise of transgenics. The "giant mouse" research was reported on the front page of most major newspapers around the globe.

An exceptional honor: Brinster is the only veterinarian to receive the National Medal of Science, presented last year by President Obama.
For his groundbreaking work, Brinster was named one of seven scientists to win the National Medal of Science in 2010, a highly prestigious award that is given annually by the president of the United States. Brinster is the first veterinarian to be so honored and only the eighth from the University of Pennsylvania in the 50-year history of the medal. He received his medal in October 2011 from President Obama himself during a ceremony held at the White House. In August of this year, the Theriogenology Foundation presented the 2012 Career Excellence in Theriogenology Award for his contributions to the field of reproductive veterinary medicine.

DVM Newsmagazine recently caught up with Dr. Brinster in his office at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia.

DVM: How did you decide to work on the mammalian germ line?

Brinster: I grew up on a farm where we raised purebred animals. Genetics was fundamental on the farm in terms of breeding success and the potential profit gained from that endeavor. I learned at an early age that you must improve animal germ lines to succeed.

Three separate stages are important to consider in studying germ lines: Pedigree tells you what you think you should get. Performance is what you actually get. And progeny is what can be passed on to offspring. For example, a horse can have a great pedigree but never win a race, or be a great racer but never sire winners. So in the end you depend on progeny to ultimately prove the power, quality and characteristics of the germ line of an animal.

DVM: What excited you about work with germ cells?

Brinster: They are the only cells that biology really cares about. What is important to the biology of the species is actually the DNA in the gametes or germ cells. Therefore, on the basis of my background on the farm, my animal science training at Rutgers and my education in veterinary medicine, I felt they were the most important cells in any animal.