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Staff writer

In the 1980s, Jozef Schell and Marc Van Montagu developed the first method to produce genetically altered, or transgenic, plants. However, the Belgian scientists say the technique, now used to improve agricultural produce, was not their invention but merely a discovery of what already exists in nature.

Schell and Van Montagu will receive this year’s Japan Prize at Tokyo’s National Theater today for their contribution to the field of biotechnology in agricultural science.

Schell, 62, a world leader in the field of plant molecular biology, and director at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding in Germany, explained that while genetic engineering is widely believed to be a human technique, nature actually has its own version of the process. “(What we found is the fact that) a bacterium in the soil uses genetic engineering to cause diseases in plants … (We thought) it could be manipulated to help agricultural development,” he said in a recent interview here.

At Belgium’s University of Ghent in the 1960s, both scientists became involved in the budding field of molecular biology. Sharing a passion for science, they started collaborating on experiments on a common soil bacterium called agrobacterium that causes tumors in plants.

In 1974, the researchers at the small university attracted world attention when the then 39-year-old bacteriologist and 41-year-old organic chemist showed that agrobacterium leaves its tiny DNA rings — later named Ti (tumor induced) plasmids — in the plant to cause a tumor in plant cells.

“The discovery was revolutionary because people didn’t think bacteria could put DNA into higher organisms,” Schell said. The revelation gave scientists a wonderful tool with which to put genes into plants.

Despite the competitive rush by many scientists to exploit the discovery, the Belgians succeeded in inserting specific genes into plants during the 1980s, using a technique that has since been widely applied to agricultural developments.

Many transgenic crops and vegetables are now on the market — including soybeans and corn that are resistant to herbicides and insects, and tomatoes that stay fresh for a longer period of time. “What the agrobacterium (discovery) has brought is a tool to improve our environment and to enhance agricultural production so we can have a more harmonious society,” said Van Montagu, 64, now a professor at the University of Ghent.

The Japan Prize is awarded by the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan, a private organization established to honor scientists judged to have made original and outstanding achievements in their field. “The prize is given to scientists who contribute to world peace and prosperity,” said the foundation’s chairman, Jiro Kondo.

Transgenic food products, however, have become highly controversial throughout the world with concerns that they may not be safe for consumption. Addressing such fears, Van Montagu said, “We are convinced there is no danger at all.”

Growth in the market for transgenic soybeans and corn has gone hand-in-hand with an increase in public fear over the products’ safety, with consumer unions and environmentalists expressing particular concern. “We hope they will listen to us,” said Van Montagu. “Because we were the ones who were concerned with how the world is deteriorating, with population growth and all the damage to the environment. We want to help,” he added.

The two laureates will receive 50 million yen in prize money.

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