BREAKING: Monsanto, Syngenta Executives Honored As 2013 World Food Prize Laureates

With this Tweet this afternoon, the World Food Prize announced Monsanto’s Dr. Robert T. Fraley and Syngenta’s Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton as 2013 World Food Prize Laureates:


Bios from the World Food Prize release:

Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton

Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton

Born: 1939 in Indianapolis, IN.

Education: Ph.D., Chemistry, University of Illinois, 1967.

Professional: Founder and Distinguished Science Fellow, Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc.

When Mary-Dell Chilton was about to enter the 7th grade, her family moved from Elgin, Illinois, to the nearby town of Hinsdale so that she could attend a better school system that offered college-preparatory courses. She took her first Biology class during this period and surprised her teachers by scoring extremely high on a national science exam. While in high school, Chilton decided to concentrate her educational goals on math and science. She also became an amateur telescope maker who was deeply interested in optics.

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 Ph.D. 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 (UW) 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 Marc 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 (T-DNA) 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 North Carolina 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.

Dr. Robert T. Fraley

Born: 1953 in Wellington, IL.

Education: Ph.D., Microbiology/Biochemistry, University of Illinois, 1978.

Professional: Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto.

Robert Fraley’s passion for helping farmers grow better and higher yielding crops was shaped by his experience growing up on a small Midwestern farm that produced grains and livestock. 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 University of Illinois 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 Mary-Dell Chilton and Marc 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 leading 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. When planting these “Roundup Ready” crops, a farmer was able to spray an entire field with glyphosate – and only the weeds would be eliminated, leaving the crop plants alive and thriving.

In leadership positions at Monsanto – currently as Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer – Fraley has played a key role in the company’s choice of research directions that led to viable finished products, and the technical and business strategy that ensured wide availability and benefit to farmers of all sizes around the world. He has especially championed making biotechnology accessible to small-holder farmers.

About The World Food Prize:

The World Food Prize is the foremost international award recognizing – without regard to race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs – the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.

The Prize recognizes contributions in any field involved in the world food supply – food and agriculture science and technology, manufacturing, marketing, nutrition, economics, poverty alleviation, political leadership and the social sciences.

The World Food Prize emphasizes the importance of a nutritious and sustainable food supply for all people. By honoring those who have worked successfully toward this goal, The Prize calls attention to what has been done to improve global food security and to what can be accomplished in the future.


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