DNA sequencing was in its infancy when they started their work. By the time they finished, they'd helped revolutionize the study of plant genetics and pioneered the field of agricultural biotechnology.
Based on their studies, scientists today can routinely insert new genes into a plant's genetic structure using Agrobacterium. They can design new crops and introduce beneficial traits such as herbicide or insect resistance, drought tolerance and higher vitamin content.
The work has also led to public fears about "Frankenfoods," or genetically engineered monster crops whose safety and environmental effects, some feel, have not been fully evaluated.
These competing views about the promise and dangers of genetic engineering collide on
The measure would require all genetically modified crops and seeds sold in
Whatever one thinks about eating the stuff, the process by which scientists unlocked Agrobacterium's secrets makes for a fascinating detective story.
Nester, now an 83-year-old professor emeritus of microbiology at UW, said it all started in 1907, when Agrobacterium was identified as the source of crown gall tumors.
That was a controversial finding, he said. "It was only some 20 years after the first discovery of plant pathogenic bacteria. There was no question bacteria caused animal disease, but it hadn't been shown in plants. German scientists in particular didn't believe it."
Agrobacterium became even more intriguing in the 1940s, when further research showed the organism was needed to start a tumor, but not to maintain it.
"You could remove the bacteria and the tumor would continue to develop," Nester said.
This was unlike any other bacteria. Something about Agrobacterium helped create crown gall tumors, but the bacteria itself wasn't required for the disease to flourish. Some other element had to be present.
Researchers referred to this mystery ingredient as the TIP or tumor-inducing principle. Identifying it, Nester said, "became the Holy Grail in crown gall research."
The race to discover the TIP heated up in the early '70s, with Nester's lab at UW and a competing lab in
"As a microbiologist, I was aware of interesting bacteria," Nester said. "I'd heard about Agrobacterium and knew it caused a plant disease and that the disease was unusual. I decided to look into it and recruited two key people: biochemist
DNA was an obvious candidate for the TIP, he said, but an inter-kingdom transfer of genetic material between bacteria and plants or animals had never before been seen. No other bacteria caused disease in that manner, so there were plenty of skeptics.
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