It wasn’t a run-of-the-mill midlife-crisis that made Jeff Wine abruptly abandon his life’s work. It was the salty taste he noticed whenever he kissed his baby daughter Nina.

In the fall of 1981, Wine was a 41-year-old associate professor in Stanford University’s prestigious psychology department. A physiological psychologist, he had already won wide recognition for his use of crayfish to study how nerve cells control behavior. He was also a firsttime parent, but not an anxious one. He figured all three-month-old babies must taste salty. Maybe their means of salt regulation takes a few months to mature.

But when Wine mentioned his observation to Nina’s pediatrician, the doctor recognized a symptom of illness known for hundreds of years in Europe and passed down in folklore: Salty-tasting babies often die of pneumonia. Today, that saltiness is known to be the hallmark of cystic fibrosis—a genetic disease that changes the composition not...

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