As a pioneer of plant molecular biology, Prof. Marc Van Montagu has made critical discoveries over the years that continue to help scientists tackle global food security challenges. Prof. Van Montagu is perhaps most renowned for identifying the tumor-inducing (Ti) plasmid and the invention of the Agrobacterium tumefaciens transformation technology, used worldwide to produce genetically engineered plants. These achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology have contributed significantly to growing crops with improved yields, resistance to insects and disease, and the ability to tolerate extreme climate variations.
Born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1933, Prof. Van Montagu grew up during the Second World War – a period of severe hardships for the general population, including food rationings. As a student at Ghent University, he became intrigued with the emerging field of molecular biology, and pursued a PhD in organic chemistry/biochemistry (1965). His research in the Cell Biology Department at Ghent University Medical School focused on RNA bacteriophages with his colleague, Prof. Walter Fiers.
In the late 1960s, Marc Van Montagu and fellow researcher, Prof. Jozef “Jeff” Schell (1935-2003), started working with the plant disease known as crown gall. In 1974, they were the first to discover that Agrobacterium tumefaciens, the plant tumor-inducing soil microbe, carries a large circular molecule of DNA, which they named “Ti plasmid,” and demonstrated that this plasmid is responsible for formation of the plant tumor. Later, they and independently Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton 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.
The scientific duo’s elucidation of the structure and function of Ti plasmid led them to develop the first technology capable of stably transferring foreign genes into plants. 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, with important implications for enhancing global crop production worldwide. Today, direct evidence of their discovery’s intellectual impact can be found in the more than 52,000 publications on Agrobacterium-mediated plant transformation.
Prof. Van Montagu went on to establish two biotechnology companies and has served on the scientific advisory boards of many others. In 2000, he founded the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach, with the mission of assisting developing countries in gaining access to the latest plant biotechnology developments and to stimulate their research institutions to become independent and competitive. He is also the President of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI).
Currently a professor emeritus of Ghent University, Marc Van Montagu remains a tireless, influential advocate for the transfer of plant biotechnology for the economic, environmental, and health benefits of the emerging and developing nations. A member of science academies and recipient of honorary degrees from universities throughout the world, his numerous honors and awards include the Charles Leopold Mayer Prize by the French Academy of Sciences (1990), the Japan Prize (1998), the Theodor Bücher Medal (FEBS; 1999 ), the World Food Prize (2013), and the Iran Agriculture Gold Medal (2015).