14 November 2013

Plant scientists win Innovation Award


The University of Copenhagen Innovation Award 2013 goes to Professor Barbara Ann Halkier for groundbreaking research in plant biotechnology with high potential for environment and society.

The University of Copenhagen Innovation Award 2013 goes to Professor Barbara Ann Halkier and four members of DynaMo Center of Excellence at the Faculty of Science. The prize is awarded for invention of a new plant biotechnological method with high potential for environment and society. The prize is awarded at the university's annual Commemoration Ceremony Friday 15 November. The winner receives DKK 10,000 and a piece of art along with the honour of winning the prize.

Professor Barbara Ann HalkierProfessor Barbara Ann Halkier, DNRF Center DynaMo, University of Copenhagen

The Innovation Award was instituted in 2011 in support of the University’s strategic efforts to promote innovation and co-operative research with a wider audience and is given to a University researcher, or group of researchers, who has made outstanding contributions to building bridges between the University and private sector businesses and/or the public sector.

Driven by curiosity
- Our research is an excellent example of how years of basic research can produce unexpected results with great potential.   Driven by curiosity we began to explore how a plant is able to send defense compounds into the seeds. When we created a mutant, which proved to entirely lack the defense compound glucosinolate in its seeds, we realized that what we had discovered something with great potential for biotechnological plant breeding, says Professor Barbara Ann Halkier, Head of DynaMo Center of Excellence, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen and recipient of the University's Innovation Award 2013

Barbara Halkier og hendes forskningsgruppeThe five award winners

With their groundbreaking result the research group has developed a biotechnological method for removing unwanted substances from edible parts of plants.

When their work was published in the scientific journal Nature in August 2012 it was met with enthusiasm from both academia and farmers alike.

Industrial collaboration with great potential
The new technology seems to have great practical applications so when the researchers filed a description of it to the University Tech Transfer Office, it contacted a number of relevant companies to find the right business partner. This has led to collaboration with one of the world's leading companies within nature applications in agriculture, Bayer CropScience, which has high hopes of the cooperation. Together with the University of Copenhagen, Bayer CropScience filed a worldwide patent for the invention and the parties have signed a license agreement for its commercial exploitation.

Peter Denolf, Research Leader at Bayer CropScience in Belgium, says about the project,

- The collaboration with the DynaMo Center of Excellence headed by Professor Halkier is a model example on how fundamental research of biological systems may translate into approaches to improve crop productivity and crop quality. Very interestingly, in combination with the crop specific genome information available at Bayer CropScience, the findings at Professor Halkier’s lab have been translated into strategies currently being evaluated in our laboratories and field trials.

From the lab to yellow rape fields
Barbara Ann Halkier is Head of Center at DynaMo where they explore the dynamics of molecules interacting with each other. The research is based on the model plant Arabidopsis and its defense compounds the so called glucosinolates. Arabidopsis is an ideal model organism as it has a very small genome and a life cycle of only eight weeks.

Barbara Ann Halkier says,

- As Arabidopsis belong to the same family as rape, it is reasonable to believe that one can transfer our findings to rape. We have shown that we can make glucosinolate-free seeds in the model plant, but the economic perspective is present in the crop and it is now up to Bayer to implement the technology there. If successful, this will have major societal perspectives as Denmark will be able to use rape as animal feed in a much larger extent than today, where the protein-rich rapeseed cake has only a limited use because of their content of glucosinolates. This means that Denmark will no longer have to import the same huge quantities of soya cake, we do now.

Outside the university walls
Barbara Ann Halkier has always had a good eye for how her research into basic biological questions can be used outside of the university walls. She also works with production of the cancer-preventive drug glucoraphanin found in broccoli and with transferring the glucosinolate defense compounds to potato plants so potatoes in future will be better to resist disease attack and therefore can be grown with the use of less pesticides.