With a simple insight and unselfish collaboration, Andras Nagy pushed stem cell research in directions it had never been before.

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Andras Nagy bent over his coffee-stained menu and began to scribble. Pentao Liu, a cancer geneticist from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom, watched from across the lunch table. It was January of 2008, and Liu had just given a talk at a conference near Munich, Germany about a DNA transposon system called piggyBac, a “jumping gene” first isolated from the cells of the cabbage looper moth. Now Nagy, a senior scientist at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, had an idea.

The piggyBac system is very efficient at inserting genes into cells and can be removed afterward, leaving no trace behind. Sitting in the café, Nagy quickly drew a series of crude circles, arrows,...

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