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Bypassing the brave new world: reporting transgenic mice in the early 1980s

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The first transgenic animals – mice modified with foreign DNA at the one-cell embryo stage – were born in the USA in 1980, amid intense debates about genetic engineering and the fledging biotech industry. From the beginning, these mice led an active public life. On the same day their birth was announced at a conference, the readers of the New York Times could learn about the experiment from the front page. Genetic modification of mammals was something most biologists had presented as a distant possibility, but despite the general climate of distrust towards genetic engineering seen in US opinion polls, the new mice were not reported as threatening. Rather, most commentators hailed these animals as a biomedical breakthrough. News from other labs soon followed, as did journal publications, opinion pieces and cover photos. In the process, the identity of transgenic mice as a working experimental tool with great potential benefits was established. How did this tangle of communication, increasingly the default for high-stakes innovation in the 1980s, make transgenic mice a success? How did scientists and universities handle broad audiences, and did they benefit from active communication? And what contemporaneous trends in science journalism allowed these mice to become a largely unproblematic breakthrough?

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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