On November 5 Washington voters will decide the fate of I-522, the initiative that, if passed, would result in the labeling of foods produced through genetic engineering. Washington would become just the fourth state in the country to institute such a labeling law, and even with the Murray vs. McGinn mayoral showdown on the ballot, it could be the most hotly contested issue of the election season. Ninety-three percent of respondents to a 2010 NPR/Thomson Reuters poll were in favor of labeling such foods, yet megacorporations like Kraft Foods Global and ConAgra Foods have invested gobs of money to fight similar measures in other states. By late September, Monsanto had pumped nearly $5 million into opposing I-522.

What neither side could have known, though, was how fitting it is that one of the biggest fights in the growing war on genetically modified food would take place in Washington state. 

It was 1980 when Dr. Richard Palmiter received his first phone call from Dr. Ralph Brinster. Palmiter was a late-30s, bearded, and ponytailed molecular geneticist from UW’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute who had a thing for denim shirts. (Still does, actually.) Brinster was a clean-cut, white lab coat–wearing developmental biologist from the University of Pennsylvania who dug mice. He’d called Palmiter to ask for some genetic material from a chicken that he hoped to inject into mouse eggs, and from that conversation the two began a nearly 15-year, bicoastal research partnership that resulted in more than 125 published papers.

But none was as monumental as “Dramatic Growth of Mice That Develop from Eggs Microinjected with Metallothionein--Growth Hormone Fusion Genes,” which appeared in the December 16, 1982, issue of Nature. For months prior they toiled in their separate labs, Palmiter isolating human growth hormone genes that he would FedEx to Pennsylvania, and Brinster injecting them into mouse eggs with a glass pipette a fraction of the width of a human hair. Brinster would implant the eggs into a female, wait for the babies to be born, and then mail samples—usually their tails—to Palmiter, who would examine them at the molecular level to see if the gene had been successfully integrated into the mouse’s genetic blueprint. Why mice? In part because unlike pig or bovine eggs, they’re perfectly transparent, making it easier to see what the pipette was piercing.

It was hardly easy work; the micro-injection process would destroy dozens of eggs, others would fail to implant, and only a fraction of the mice that were born expressed the growth hormone gene. But those that did provided irrefutable evidence that the experiment worked. A photo published in Nature—which has become visual shorthand for their work—shows two mice from the same litter, one nearly twice the size of the other. The press dubbed the rodent “supermouse,” and the discovery even made it into one of Johnny Carson’s monologues, a footnote that still makes Palmiter chuckle today.

Palmiter and Brinster weren’t the first to genetically modify an organism—that distinction goes to Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, who engineered antibiotic--resistant E. coli in 1973—but it was their research that jump-started the process and ultimately led to cloned sheep, crops impervious to pests, and stem cell therapy. The bitter fight over I-522 only underscores the highly controversial natures of some of those advances. And, predictably, Palmiter has answered questions about playing god for nearly three decades. But he stands behind the work without reservation. “Some people believe these species deserve to be left alone,” he says, with the clinical tone of a man whose career was based on the scientific method. “But people have been messing with the genomes of plants and animals for years.” He pauses. “It’s called breeding.”

 

This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Seattle Met.

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