Marc Van Montagu, Ph.D., Mary-Dell Chilton, Ph.D., and Robert T. Fraley, Ph.D., have won the 2013 World Food Prize. The three were honored during a ceremony at the U.S. State Department this week.

Dr. Van Montagu is founder and chairman of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach (IPBO) at Ghent University in Belgium. Dr. Chilton is founder and distinguished fellow of Syngenta Biotechnology. Dr. Fraley is evp and CTO of Monsanto.

Drs. Van Montagu, Chilton, and Fraley each conducted molecular research on how a plant bacterium could be used as a tool to insert genes from another organism into plant cells, producing new genetic lines with favorable traits. The work of these three scientists “unlocked the key to plant cell transformation using recombinant DNA,” the World Food Prize foundation said.

In the late 1960s, Van Montagu and another researcher, Jeff Schell, Ph.D. (who died in 2003), began research on crown gall, a plant disease in which tumorous growths appear beneath the stem. They were reportedly the first to discover that Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a soil microbe associated with such growths, carries a large DNA molecule that they dubbed “Ti plasmid,” which they would subsequently discover is responsible for the formation of plant tumors. Later, along with Dr. Chilton and her research team at the University of Washington, the researchers figured out how that works: A segment of the plasmid, the T-DNA, is copied and transferred into the genome of the infected plant cell. In 1982, several years after accepting a faculty position at Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Chilton and her team used Agrobacterium to produce the first transgenic tobacco plant, showing that T-DNA could be used to transfer genes from other organisms into higher plants.

Building upon the research of Drs. Van Montagu and Chilton, Dr. Fraley and his research team managed to isolate a bacterial marker gene and engineer it to express in plant cells. They then inserted the gene into Agrobacterium, thus transferring an immunity trait into petunia and tobacco cells. Hence, the first transgenic plants using the Agrobacterium transformation process were created. Dr. Fraley would later apply similar techniques to corn, cotton, and soybeans, and was among those responsible for the launch of Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996.

“These three scientists are being recognized for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology,” said Kenneth M. Quinn, World Food Prize president. “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.”

The three scientists will be formally awarded the World Food Prize at the 27th Annual Laureate Award Ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol on October 17. 

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