Thirty years ago, a race was under way to figure out how to efficiently get foreign genes into plants. In the winter of 1983, three teams presented breakthroughs at the same biochemistry conference in Miami, work that ultimately led to the biotech crops that now dominate commodity agriculture. Today, a member of each team was awarded a third of the $250,000 World Food Prize for their contributions to starting the era of agricultural biotechnology.
Working at the Ghent University Medical School in Belgium, Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell (who died in 2003) had been investigating the genetics of a plant disease called crown gall. They found that a ring of DNA, called a plasmid, in the microbe caused the gall, Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Once it became clear that the bacterium transferred part of its DNA into the genome of the plant, the next step was to use it to insert other genes.
Each of the awardees—Van Montagu, Robert Fraley of Monsanto, and Mary-Dell Chilton at the University of Washington—figured out how to use Agrobacterium to swap foreign genes into plants. Chilton also discovered how to "disarm" Agrobacterium so that it wouldn't cause the galls. Van Montagu subsequently started two biotech companies, Chilton was hired by what is now Syngenta, and Fraley worked his way up to become chief technology officer at Monsanto.
All three, according to the citation, "have contributed significantly to increasing the quantity and availability of food, and can play a critical role as we face the global challenges of the 21st century of producing more food, in a sustainable way, while confronting an increasingly volatile climate."