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Prize recipient: plants need special help to survive climate change

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.

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.”

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, [email protected], +45 3067 4805