Mary-Dell Chilton had journeyed from the West Coast to New York City in September 1977 to demonstrate her discovery to one of the most important plant scientists in the world, Armin Braun, a professor at Rockefeller University. Braun theorized that Agrobacterium somehow triggered a developmental change in plants, resulting in the tumors associated with crown gall disease. Subsequently, at the University of Washington in Seattle, microbiologist Gene Nester, plant viral RNA biochemist Milt Gordon, and Chilton, a biochemist, had shown that the bacterium inserted a sliver of its own DNA, causing the tumors. Braun was an eminent scientist nearing the end of his career; Chilton, a promising professor. She spoke for three hours. "It was teaching him," Chilton recalls today. "I was spoon-feeding him the genetic chemistry we had done, piece by piece. That was the highlight of my young career."

In the end, Braun accepted the...

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