A celebration of agricultural production advancements was held with the presentation of the World Food Prize and other special events in Des Moines, Iowa.

Three scientists, two with Midwest roots, received the prestigious World Food Prizes for their roles in developing the science of modern plant biotechnology.

Marc Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium; Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and Distinguished Fellow of Syngenta Biotechnology; and Robert T. Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto, were formally awarded the World Food Prize at the 27th annual Laureate Award Ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol.

The awards program is in conjunction with the Borlaug Dialogue international symposium in Des Moines, focused this year on “The Next Borlaug Century: Biotechnology, Sustainability and Climate Volatility.”

The World Food Prize Foundation also will begin the yearlong Borlaug Centennial Observance, honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Norman Borlaug, founder of the World Food Prize and known as the “Father of the Green Revolution.”

Chilton was born in Indianapolis, and her family moved to northern Illinois in her youth, first in Hinsdale and on to Elgin when she was about to enter seventh grade. It was in Elgin she took her first biology class, and the rest is history.

In college, Chilton studied the chemical basis of biological specificity, which to her delight addressed numerous questions that had no answers — and therefore offered the possibility of discovery. The direction of her life’s work in molecular genetics and plant biotechnology became clear while she pursued her doctorate in chemistry at the University of Illinois.

The double helix structure of DNA fascinated her, and after doing her doctoral thesis on bacterial transformation, showing that both strands of the helix can “fix” a cell, she accepted a postdoctoral position in microbiology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

It was there that she 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.

In the race to build upon the work of Van Montagu and Jeff Schell, Chilton and two colleagues at UW — Milton Gordon, now deceased, and Eugene Nester — 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 in Agrobacterium tumefaciens into the host plant, where it becomes part of the plant’s genome.

Chilton 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 plant, and she reported these startling findings at the 1983 Miami Winter Biochemistry Symposium.

Chilton’s work demonstrated that T-DNA can be used to transfer genes from other organisms into higher plants. Thus, her work provided evidence that plant genomes could be manipulated in a much more precise fashion than was possible using traditional plant breeding.

Chilton was hired by Ciba-Geigy Corp. — later Syngenta Biotechnology Inc., or SBI — at Research Triangle Park in N.C. 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.

Chilton 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.

Fraley was born in Wellington, Ill., and his passion for helping farmers grow better and higher yielding crops was shaped by his experience growing up on a small Illinois grain and livestock farm.

As a child exploring the world around him in rural Illinois, his interest in the scientific complexities of living organisms developed very early and blossomed during his undergraduate education and graduate training in microbiology and biochemistry at the U of I and in his post-doctoral research in biophysics at the University of California-San Francisco.

Hired by Monsanto in 1981 as a research specialist, Fraley led a plant molecular biology group that worked on developing better crops through genetic engineering — to give farmers real solutions to critical problems such as the pest and weed infestations that frequently destroyed crops.

His early research built upon the discoveries of Chilton and Van Montagu as he focused on inventing effective methods for gene transfer systems.

A breakthrough occurred when 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.

Fraley and his team produced the first transgenic plants using the Agrobacterium transformation process and presented these findings at the Miami Biochemistry Winter Symposium

Coming from a farm, Fraley could see the potential that this emerging science offered to farmers across many countries, many crops and farms of all sizes.

To better understand farmers’ needs regarding the application of biotechnology to agriculture, he often went out into fields to observe local agronomic practices and talk with farmers to ensure that they would be offered solutions that worked better than any alternatives.

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

Plant breeders now have the ability to understand the genetic composition of every seed, and farmers have more tools than ever before to ensure that they can grow higher yielding crops.

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

Van Montagu grew up in Belgium during the World War II, a time when food rationing and general hardships were common among most of that country’s population.

Despite his family’s economic difficulties throughout the war and post-war period, they were able to send their only child to good primary and secondary schools. The excellent teachers in high school triggered Van Montagu’s enthusiasm for organic chemistry and biology.

Later, as a student at Ghent University, he became intrigued with the new science of molecular biology, particularly the functions of DNA and RNA, which recently had been discovered to be present in all living organisms.

Van Montagu’s path of study and scientific experimentation culminating in a doctorate degree led to a permanent position with the Cell Biology Department at Ghent University Medical School, where he focused his research on RNA bacteriophages with his colleague Walter Fiers.

In the late 1960s, Van Montagu and fellow researcher Schell 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 Chilton and her research team at UW, demonstrated that a segment of this plasmid, the T-DNA, is copied and transferred into the genome of the infected plant cell.

Van Montagu and 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. This 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 landmark discovery provided scientists with an appropriate tool, or vector, to pursue complex biological questions in terms of specific genes, their structure and the control of their expression in all aspects of plant biology.

Plant biotechnology as a new phenomenon rocketed to the forefront of the scientific world in 1983 when Van Montagu, Chilton and Fraley each presented the results of their independent, pioneering research on the successful transfer of bacterial genes into plants and the creation of genetically modified plants at the Miami Biochemistry Winter Symposium: “Advances in Gene Technology.”

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.