The paper that kicked off green biotech

Herrera-Estrella, Depicker, Van Montagu & Schell,
Nature, 303, 209 – 213, 1983

The discovery of the Ti plasmid is a classic case of curiosity-driven research leading to major scientific breakthroughs. Besides bringing about an agricultural revolution, its results include the proliferation of new research tools and quantum leaps in fundamental and applied research.

Until 1983 new plant varieties could only be obtained with classical breeding technologies such as crossing and mutagenesis. When Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell – at the Laboratory of Genetics, Ghent University – demonstrated that Agrobacterium could be used as a vehicle for stably transferring any kind of foreign gene into a plant genome, their pioneering research started a whole new era of plant science and crop engineering.

In 1983, Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell, together with Luis Herrera-Estrella (currently a Howard Hughes Investigator and Director at the National Polytechnic Institute in Irapuato, Mexico) and Ann Depicker (currently Group Leader at the VIB Department of Plant Systems Biology, UGent), proved that they could use Ti plasmids to introduce novel genes into a plant by inserting a foreign gene into a tobacco plant. This achievement was published in Nature on May 19, 1983. Less than a week later, another group published similar results in Science – a vivid demonstration of the intense competition in the field.

As early as the Seventies, Van Montagu and Schell were investigating the molecular basis of a plant tumor produced by Agrobacterium tumefaciens, the causal agent of crown gall disease. What they discovered were extra chromosomal DNA elements (Ti or tumor inducing  plasmids), leading them to conclude that there had to be a mechanism by which bacterial pathogens could reprogram their host’s developmental and metabolic processes for their own needs.  

Potent tool for fundamental research

The interaction between plants and Agrobacterium is an extremely interesting biological phenomenon, and its study has led to an abundance of fundamental insights. These include the recognition that bacterial genes can integrate into the plant genome and direct the synthesis of plant growth regulators, a more rational understanding of how plant growth regulators function in plants, and a better understanding of the communication between microbes and plants in the soil environment.
Furthermore, the new technology has allowed researchers to study plant processes through gain of function and enabled a systematic and refined analysis of the impact of single genes on all aspects of plant biology. Much of today’s detailed knowledge about how plants grow and develop and how they respond to pathogens or abiotic stress has been gained from the creation of  transgenic plants.

A discovery with a huge impact on agriculture worldwide

The genetic engineering of crops has transformed the agricultural world. Today all transformations of major crops, including maize, soybean, cotton, rice and cereals, are accomplished primarily with Agrobacterium.

This article featured in the VIBnews of 15 September 2011.