Speaking Volumes: Preimplantation Stages of Pregnancy

March 8, 1996

Anne McLaren on G. E. W. Wolstenhome and M.O'Connor's Preimplantation Stages of Pregnancy .

It all began in the Doghouse, aka the Canine Block at the Royal Veterinary College in Camden Town. My colleague Donald Michie and I were working there in the late 1950s. We were paid by the Agricultural Research Council to see whether preimplantation embryos transferred from the womb of one female mouse to another with a slightly different backbone resembled their uterine foster mother more than their genetic mother. (They did.) Next door to us worked John Biggers, who lectured to veterinary students and grew chick bones in glass dishes.

Then a couple of papers appeared reporting that mouse preimplantation embryos could be grown in glass dishes for a day or so. John and I tried it out. The embryos grew from eight cells to 30 or 40 cells. We decided to see if we could turn these cultured embryos into mice by transferring them to foster mothers. John Biggers was on holiday in the Isle of Wight when the first babies were born. I sent him a telegram (causing his local post office some concern): "Four bottled babies born". It was a first.

Five years later I was in Edinburgh and John Biggers was in Philadelphia. Our bottled babies had been followed by many more in other labs. We approached the Ciba Foundation, an independent trust based in London that specialises in the organisation of small conferences and publication of the proceedings in book form. They agreed to hold a symposium. We selected 15 speakers and ten other participants. Almost all worked on mouse embryos, with a couple on rabbit and one on rat (Dr Pincus, the father of the contraceptive pill).

Professor Waddington, the head of the institute where I worked in Edinburgh, agreed reluctantly (he had done little work on mammals) to chair the meeting. He proved to be an excellent chairman.

About a third of Preimplantation Stages of Pregnancy is taken up by lively, sometimes contentious, discussions which I helped to edit. They remain a mine of ideas and information, and for me a vivid reminder of the personalities of the various participants.

We had brought together Chris Tarkowski from Poland and Beatrice Mintz from the United States, between whom a certain coolness had arisen concerning the priority and hence terminology for the new and very powerful technique of aggregation chimaeras/allophenic mice. (Chimaeras won). Ralph Brinster talked about his PhD work with John Biggers. Later, after the recombinant DNA revolution, Ralph made use of his embryo culture expertise to pioneer the production of transgenic mice. David Kirby, by growing mouse embryos in unusual sites (kidney, testis, oviduct) explored the role of the uterus in promoting normal development of the embryo even before implantation. David died a few years later as the result of a tragic road accident, otherwise he would be one of the leaders of the field today.

Why did the symposium matter? Five years earlier, there would have been little to report. Five years on, no way could the whole topic have been encompassed in a single symposium. I like to think that the explosive growth of the field was in part due to the publication of this volume.

Why was it important to me? Up to that time, apart from producing three children and attending the occasional scientific congress, I had kept my nose glued to the laboratory bench. Preimplantation Stages of Pregnancy brought home to me for the first time the power that institutions such as the Ciba Foundation have to spread a message throughout the world.

Buy a copy - it was 60 shillings then and Pounds 5 now, and it is still a good read.

Anne McLaren is principal research associate, Wellcome CRC Unit, Cambridge.

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