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