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Goldberg's Variations
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Summer 1999
Goldberg's Variations
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"We have the ability to peer into our DNA for the first time in history. That means we can program the entire blueprint of life from beginning to end," he says. "Do you realize the implications of that? That means we can alter it! The ultimate end game of all of this is the control of our biological destiny. And that means it's going to affect how we think about ourselves and our culture."

Given the conviction with which he speaks about the human impact of "the age of DNA," it's somewhat curious that Bob Goldberg studies plants. As an undergrad at Ohio University in the mid-1960s, he double-majored in political science and botany. Although he flirted with the idea of becoming a constitutional scholar, the law never really had a chance. "My friends were all premed or prelaw, and I was off in the woods making leaf collections," Goldberg quips. "They thought I was nuts."

Specifically, Goldberg was drawn to the study of plant genetics at a time when only a handful of researchers shared his interest, and no one - including Goldberg - could foresee the enormous benefit that might come from such knowledge.

"There wasn't one human being, including the most avant-garde science writers, who thought about genetic engineering at that time," he says. "We had no idea what the applications of our discoveries might be; it was just knowledge for knowledge's sake. It's like, why does someone open a book and enjoy the poems of e.e. cummings? It just struck me as fascinating."

As is often the case in basic science, the knowledge Goldberg gained by mining the plant genome to learn about its biological processes harbored unforeseen rewards. Goldberg has always been interested in learning about the DNA "switches" that activate and deactivate plant genes during development. More than a decade ago he discovered a set of tobacco genes that simultaneously switch on only during development of the plant's male sex organs. The cells that these genes activated were those related to the production of pollen, which contains the plants' sperm cells. When Goldberg presented the discovery at a conference in Ghent, Belgium, a representative of the agricultural biotechnology company Plant Genetic Systems took more than a passing interest.

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