Prize recipient: plants need special help to survive climate change

“Congratulations to my former boss from the Salk Institute, Detlef Weigel, on receiving the prestigious 2020 Novozymes Prize. He was very influential in my early career and his insights into the effects of climate change on the European continent are important. See the article below for a look at how Dr. Weigel believes gene editing can be a significant benefit to this area of the world.” — Greg Gocal

The trajectory of global climate change will strongly affect the ability of plants to grow. However, contrary to what one might think, the plants in the hottest regions will not always be those immediately hit hardest.

“Since it will become even drier around the Mediterranean, one might think that the Mediterranean plant populations are the ones that are most at risk. But it turns out that plants in central Europe may be at greater risk, because they basically have no genetic toolkit to deal with drought. Since evolution cannot catch up, we must consider using genome editing to help plants to adapt faster. Otherwise they can become extinct,” says Detlef Weigel, Professor and Director, Department of Molecular Biology, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany.

Detlef Weigel has studied plant development and adaptation for three decades. His outstanding research has led not only to fundamental understanding of the genetic structure of plants but also to technological contributions that have had major impact on the entire field of plant biotechnology. His work includes the use of genomics technologies to study the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which has led to detailed understanding of the variation in plant genomes, with great potential to help to prevent diseases and increase crop yields.

In recognition of the outstanding research he has undertaken during his entire research career, the 2020 Novozymes Prize is being awarded to Detlef Weigel. The Prize is awarded to recognize outstanding research or technology contributions that benefit the development of biotechnological science for innovative solutions. The Prize is accompanied by DKK 3 million and is awarded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Bernard Henrissat, Chair of the Committee on the Novozymes Prize, says: “Detlef Weigel is an extremely high-calibre, imaginative and enthusiastic scientist. He achieves excellence through the clarity of his thinking, extensive literature analysis to ensure that he approaches each topic in a scholarly fashion and excellent execution of his projects. The work of Detlef Weigel has driven forward the plant field and generated outstanding research contributions that have benefitted the development of innovative biotechnological solutions for breeding improved crops and feeding the world in the future.”

Biotechnological impact

An early achievement of Detlef Weigel was demonstrating that the LEAFY gene on its own can induce flower formation in Arabidopsis thaliana. However, while fascinating for basic research, the biotechnological interest of this discovery was at first limited, because this plant is just a small weed that grows on fields, along railroad tracks and at roadsides. The breakthrough came when Detlef Weigel was joined by a Swedish postdoctoral fellow, Ove Nilsson. Together, they made the remarkable discovery that the LEAFY gene has the same power to turn leafy shoots into flowers in aspen trees. Very differently from Arabidopsis thaliana, these plants typically make their first flowers only after 10 years, and plant breeders that want to cross different varieties with each other have to be very, very patient. With the LEAFY gene, they could reduce the onset of flowering to a few months. This was the first demonstration that genes from Arabidopsis thaliana, which has no agronomic or commercial value, could be used directly to change very different plants in a meaningful way – justifying investments both by established crop-breeding companies and by startups in using Arabidopsis thaliana as a powerful tool for biotechnological discoveries.

“The biotechnology field has relied heavily on the type of tools and approaches Detlef Weigel has pioneered. He is in all respects a very worthy recipient of the 2020 Novozymes Prize,” says Bernard Henrissat.

“Plants need help”

Arabidopsis thaliana has also formed the basis for Detlef Weigel’s recent work on how plants react to climate change. According to Detlef Weigel, plants in central Europe basically have no genetic toolkit to cope with extended drought, whereas the plants in the Mediterranean are already well equipped to deal with drought. Similar considerations almost certainly apply to crops, and this apparent danger has led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to specifically mention the potential of modern breeding technology and genome editing to help plants to adapt faster to global change.

Detlef Weigel says: “Evolution may not work rapidly enough to save these plants, but we are fortunate since we now have genomic technologies that give these plants a head start. Just as genome editing is revolutionizing medicine and animal breeding, it is a revolutionary technology for plants. Of course, our first priority must be to stop climate change – another area in which genome-edited plants can play an important role, by permanently removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

The 2020 Novozymes Prize comes as a great surprise to Detlef Weigel.

“Only a few people think of me as a biotechnologist first, so I feel doubly honoured that this was seen as an important contribution to biotechnology. Even though I will be the one who will be honoured, it is really for my team and the efforts of many amazing people with whom I have worked over the years. I would like to thank all of them in accepting this Prize.”

Prize ceremony

Detlef Weigel will officially receive the 2020 Novozymes Prize at a prize ceremony on 27 March in Bagsværd, Denmark.

About Detlef Weigel

  • 2019 Barbara McClintock Prize for Plant Genetics and Genome Studies
  • 2016 Genetics Society of America Medal
  • 2015 Mendel Medal of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
  • 2010 Foreign Member, Royal Society of London
  • 2010 Otto Bayer Award of the Bayer Foundations
  • 2009 Member, United States National Academy of Sciences
  • 2001 Director, Department of Molecular Biology, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany
  • 2003 Adjunct Professor, Plant Biology Laboratory, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA, USA
  • 1994 National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award
  • 1988 PhD in Genetics, Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology and Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, Germany

    About the Novozymes Prize

    The Prize is awarded to recognize a pioneering research effort or a technological contribution that promotes the development of biotechnology science to generate innovative solutions. The Prize is accompanied by DKK 3 million: DKK 2.5 million for the Prize recipient’s research and a personal award of DKK 0.5 million.

    The Prize is awarded for a predominantly European contribution. Prize recipients must be employed at a public or non-profit research institution in a European country. They can have any nationality. The Committee on the Novozymes Prize awards the Prize on behalf of the Novo Nordisk Foundation based on nominations received. Anyone may nominate a candidate for the Prize.

    About the Max Planck Society and the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology

    The Max Planck Society is Germany’s most successful research organization. Since its establishment in 1948, no fewer than 18 Nobel laureates have emerged from the ranks of its scientists, putting it on a par with the best and most prestigious research institutions worldwide. The more than 15,000 publications each year in internationally renowned scientific journals are proof of the outstanding research work conducted at Max Planck Institutes – and many of those articles are among the most frequently cited publications in the relevant field. The Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology studies fundamental aspects of microbial, plant and animal biology both in the laboratory and in natural settings. To this end, it makes use of approaches that range from biochemistry and cell and developmental biology to evolutionary and ecological genetics, functional genomics and computational biology.

    Further information

    Christian Mostrup, Senior Press Officer, Novo Nordisk Foundation,, +45 3067 4805

    The 2020 Novozymes Prize is being awarded to Professor Detlef Weigel (photo) for his outstanding research contributions that have led to groundbreaking new knowledge of the genetic structure of plants. His work has had major impact on developing innovative biotechnological solutions for crop improvement and understanding how plants adapt to the environment. The Novo Nordisk Foundation awards the Prize, which is accompanied by DKK 3 million.

Decreasing Pod Shatter Means Increasing Sustainability

Improving agricultural sustainability can take on many different forms. It can mean creating more disease-resistant crops, which allows farmers to apply less fungicide. It can mean growing plants that have a different herbicide tolerance, providing an alternative weed control option. And improving agricultural sustainability can even mean something as simple as reducing pod shatter.

Pod shatter is the tendency of canola seed pods to open pre-harvest, causing the seeds to fall out of their casing prematurely and rendering them impossible to pick up with a machine harvester. Why does limiting pod shatter matter? To deal with this challenge, most canola farmers in North America traditionally cut their canola into swaths prior to maturity to avoid pod shatter, which can reduce crop yields up to 40 percent. This extra step requires another piece of equipment–a swather–increasing the time and money spent to harvest the canola crop. Even the fuel used to swath the entire canola field is a significant contributor to this increased cost and environmental strain.

In creating canola crops that are less likely to open before their time, we have the potential to reduce the amount of fossil fuels required for canola production, ultimately providing environmental benefit. After completing field trials this fall, we announced a new canola trait obtained by precisely editing the canola genome to reduce pod shatter. Our work in reducing pod shatter aligns with Cibus’ overall mission: introducing new plant traits the same way nature does—just faster and more efficiently—to create a sustainable future.

How Gene Editing is Reshaping Agriculture

Though it hasn’t garnered the attention this revolution merits, a new technology is reshaping the oldest human enterprise: agriculture. With gene editing comes a new model of how crops are improved and produced, who produces the plants, and how they will be introduced to farmers and importantly how plant breeding can quickly respond to change including arming crops with traits to combat our changing climate. The changes coming to agriculture will be as profound as the original marriage of agriculture and genetics, but this revolution represents a return to the way plants adapt in nature.

To understand the degree to which gene editing tools are reshaping the seed industry consider an analogy: the telephone. For generations, innovation in phones occurred slowly and within the context of landlines, reflecting the conservatism of both the providers and the customers. Then, in the 1980s, cell phones came along, liberating people from their desks, followed by smart phones, which saw new features such as clocks, cameras, GPS and internet. The companies that now dominate the mobile world — Apple, Samsung — had no presence in the landline universe which dominated the telecommunications landscape for 100 years.

Until just a few years ago, the seed industry was very much like the telecommunications business during the Bell conglomerate. The customers are conservative, and as most crops ended up in commodities, seed customers felt no urgency to react to innovations. This was convenient for the big seed producers as innovation was a slow process. Even with the advent of GMOs, introduction of a new trait involved a cumbersome and time-consuming process of doing hundreds of introductions to find the right transgene and then back-crossing that gene into the most advanced hybrids. This took years and vast sums of money, and then the innovators had to negotiate the complicated regulations that govern GMOs.

Moreover, agriculture is traditionally a seasonal, and often a low margin business, which tends to make farmers even more risk averse. When confronted with a new seed that promises tolerance of herbicides, resistance to disease or a more robust yield, the farmer had to weigh the benefits against the possibility that the unknown agronomic aspects of the new seed might not fit his or her land. But, what if a farmer could get a seed with a new trait without sacrificing the hard-won agronomics incorporated into his existing crop?

Instead of getting a new landline, the farmer would be adding new features to a smart phone. For the farmer the new features would be accretive, promising additional income without risk. This is the promise of gene editing.

The key to this revolution lies in the way new traits will be produced and introduced into crops. Rather than introduce a foreign gene randomly and then back crossing it into an elite hybrid, with gene editing, the researcher edits the appropriate gene non-randomly within an existing elite plant. Then, the researcher grows the plant with the new trait from a single cell into a new hybrid that has all the characteristics of its parent, plus the desired trait. Because researchers can precisely trace the edits and only grow those plants with the desired change, there is no possibility of unintended consequences. The new plant has a normal regulatory path as compared to a GMO organism.

Precision gene editing allows plant breeders to introduce new traits simultaneously, and because nature is efficient, understanding the genetics of a particular trait such as disease resistance in one plant, gives researchers a leg up in understanding the genetics of such resistance in another plant. Apart from the elegance of editing the genes related to a trait, precision gene editing can reduce the time between an edit and a crop in the field to as little as 18-24 months compared to up to 10-13 years with GMOs. This can be accomplished using nucleases (like CRISPRs and TALENs) in concert with a chemical construct called an oligonucleotide. All this translates to lower costs, bringing the price for a new trait down from $135 million (from the GMO method) to less than a tenth of this cost. The advantage of reduced time and cost will allow smaller biotechs to compete and partner with the agchem giants, and a new paradigm for seed producers will be born at a time when the world needs it most.

Publication: Seed World
Publisher: Seed World
Date: Jan 31, 2020
Copyright © 2020, Seed World, Inc.

So where exactly does our food come from? And why should we care?

(Part of the “Don’t Fear Science in Your Food” Series)

In 1850, 90 percent of the global population was involved in farming. In 2020, only 1-2 percent will be. How did this dramatic shift happen, and what are the implications on the food industry as a whole?

For one, the global population has increased exponentially over the course of 200 years, forcing farmers to adopt new technologies—such as motorized equipment and labor—that could feed the growing demand. In 1940, one farmer could supply food for 19 people. Now, in 2019, one farmer can supply food for 155 people.

While this shift allowed the majority of the population to pursue lives outside of the farm, it also had an unintended consequence: the majority of the population doesn’t really know where their food comes from. A massive disconnect exists between the food on a person’s plate and their understanding of how it got there. And as with anything that’s shrouded in unknowns and mysteries, fear and suspicion often fill in the knowledge gaps.

This disconnect has led to a prevailing distrust of the food industry, especially when it comes to technology in our food. But this distrust highlights why it’s so important to fully understand where your food comes from, not only from a safety perspective, but also from an awareness perspective. Past technologies like motorized equipment and labor have allowed farmers to feed more people while stewarding their patch of dirt. As the population continues to expand, land becomes scarcer and plants become more susceptible to disease, we will need to rely on additional new technologies and innovations to meet our growing needs. Certain gene editing approaches are able to make crops mores sustainable, disease-resistant and heartier—all while leaving plants’ DNA essentially untouched—yet they face negative public perception. But in order to feed the projected 11 billion people who will be on our planet by 2050, we’re going to have to change that.

If we have a better understanding of our foods’ origins, as well as the technologies that can help improve them, it would help remove some of the fear and suspicion from our plates.

Why is science ‘okay’ for our climate, but not for our food?

(Part of the “Don’t Fear Science in Your Food” Series)

Between a growing population, shifting climate and dwindling resources, it’s no secret that our planet is in the midst of multiple environmental crises. And people across the globe are responding to these looming concerns, embracing the fact that we must “trust the science” and change the destructive, unsustainable habits our society has grown into.

But only to a certain extent.

While the public has been accepting of certain technologies that make our daily practices more environmentally friendly—such as for climate change—the public hasn’t been very accepting of technology that makes our food more environmentally friendly. In the US, based on a 2014 study by the USDA, food production accounts for about 2% of our energy use, and it’s one of the largest consumers of energy across the globe. Using science to develop food that’s heartier, more nutritious, more sustainable and disease-resistant is a reality we will all have to face—and it’s really not as scary as you may think.

There’s a lot of science in our food already. Take selective breeding, for example: a practice that farmers have been honing for millennia. By selecting and breeding the plant species with the most desirable traits—such as size or flavor—agriculture has changed dramatically over the course of history. Corn is barely recognizable from what it once was, and vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower all belong to the same plant species, Brassica oleracea.

With gene editing technologies, including CRISPR approaches and our gene repair oligonucleotide (GRON), there are a number of solutions that add diversity to provide starting points for the selective breeding process that farmers and breeders use, speeding it up from hundreds or thousands of years to less than a decade. By selecting the traits that are more desirable, these approaches can help make agriculture more sustainable for our planet’s growing population.

We must “trust the science” for all of the environmental crises on the horizon—including the food we grow, cultivate and eat.