Biotechnology scientists awarded World Food Prize

by Eric Schroeder
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WASHINGTON — Marc Van Montagu of Belgium, Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley of the United States, three scientists known for their work in agricultural biotechnology, were named co-winners of the 2013 World Food Prize at a June 19 ceremony at the U.S. State Department that featured Secretary of State John Kerry.

“2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA Molecule by James Watson, Francis Crick and Morris Wilkins,” said M.S. Swaminathan, chairman of the World Food Prize Laureate Selection Committee. “During the last 60 years, the science of molecular genetics, also referred to as New Genetics, has opened up uncommon opportunities for shaping the future of agriculture, industry, medicine and environment protection. It is therefore appropriate that the World Food Prize is being awarded this year to some of the pioneers of the New Genetics who have opened up opportunities for achieving a balance between human numbers and the human capacity to produce adequate food.”

Mr. Kerry added, “Hunger is a trap that prevents people from realizing their God-given potential. Food drives life. And the struggle for food is a struggle for life. This makes hunger an economic issue, a national security issue — and without a doubt a moral issue. Through innovation, we can help alleviate hunger and malnutrition today — but more than that, we can help fulfill our responsibility to tomorrow.”

In announcing the names of the 2013 Laureates, Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, emphasized the impact and potential of their work.

“These three scientists are being recognized for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology,” Mr. Quinn said. “Their research is making it possible for farmers to grow crops with improved yields, resistance to insects and disease, and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate.”

Marc Van Montagu

In the late 1960s, Mr. Van Montagu and a fellow researcher Jeff Schell (1935-2003) started working with the plant disease known as crown gall. They were the first to discover — in 1974 — that Agrobacterium tumefaciens, the plant tumor-inducing soil microbe, carries a rather large circular molecule of DNA, which they named “Ti plasmid.” They demonstrated that this plasmid is responsible for formation of the plant tumor. Later, they, and Mary-Dell Chilton and her research team at the University of Washington, demonstrated that a segment of this plasmid, the T-DNA, is copied and transferred into the genome of the infected plant cell.

Mr. Van Montagu and Mr. Schell’s elucidation of the structure and function of Ti plasmid led to their development of the first technology to stably transfer foreign genes into plants. The discovery galvanized the emerging molecular biology community and set up a race to develop workable plant gene tools that could genetically engineer an array of plants and greatly enhance crop production worldwide. Their discovery provided scientists with an appropriate tool to pursue complex biological questions in terms of specific genes, their structure, and the control of their expression in all aspects of plant biology.

Mr. Van Montagu went on to found two biotechnology companies: Plant Genetic Systems, best known for its early work on insect-resistant and herbicide tolerant crops; and Crop Design, a company focused on the genetic engineering of agronomic traits for the global commercial corn and rice seed markets.

In 2000, he also founded the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach with the mission to assist developing countries in gaining access to the latest plant biotechnology developments and to stimulate their research institutions to become independent and competitive.

Mary-Dell Chilton

While at the University of Washington in Seattle, Ms. Chilton learned DNA hybridization technology, a collection of tools that served her well in her next undertaking, a study of how Agrobacterium causes plant cells to grow into a gall. Along with two colleagues — Milton Gordon (now deceased) and Eugene Nester — Ms. Chilton made the breakthrough discovery that the crown gall tumors of plants are caused by the transfer of only a small piece of DNA from the Ti plasmid (T-DNA) in Agrobacterium tumefaciens into the host plant, where it becomes part of the plant’s genome.

She continued her molecular biology research at Washington University in St. Louis, accepting a faculty position there in 1979. Three years later, her team harnessed the gene-transfer mechanism of Agrobacterium to produce the first transgenic tobacco. Ms. Chilton’s work demonstrated that T-DNA may be used to transfer genes from other organisms into higher plants. Thus, her work provided evidence that plant genomes may be manipulated in a much more precise fashion than was possible using traditional plant breeding.

Ms. Chilton was hired by Ciba-Geigy Corp. (later Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc., or SBI) in 1983, and began the next phase of her career, spanning both biotechnology research and administrative roles, including vice-president of agricultural biotechnology, distinguished science fellow, and principal scientist.

She established one of the world’s first industrial agricultural biotechnology programs, leading applied research in areas such as disease and insect resistance, as well as continuing to improve transformation systems in crop plants. She has spent the last three decades overseeing the implementation of the new technology she developed and further improving it to be used in the introduction of new and novel genes into plants.

Robert Fraley

Hired by Monsanto in 1981 as a research specialist, Mr. Fraley led a plant molecular biology group that worked on developing better crops through genetic engineering. His early research built upon the discoveries of Ms. Chilton and Mr. Van Montagu as he focused on inventing effective methods for gene transfer systems.

A breakthrough occurred when Mr. Fraley and his team isolated a bacterial marker gene and engineered it to express in plant cells. By inserting that gene into Agrobacterium, they were able to transfer an immunity trait into petunia and tobacco cells. Mr. Fraley and his team produced the first transgenic plants using the Agrobacterium transformation process.

With his team of researchers, Mr. Fraley developed more elaborate plant transformations of an array of crops, leading to the widespread accessibility of farmers across the globe to bioengineered seeds with resistance to insect and weed pests, and with tolerance to changes in climate such as excessive heat and drought.

In 1996, he led the successful introduction of bioengineered soybeans that were resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, commercially known as Roundup.

Mr. Fraley is currently executive vice-president and chief technology officer at Monsanto, where he has played a key role in the company’s choice of research directions. He has especially championed making biotechnology accessible to small-holder farmers.

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