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
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
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
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.