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Christoph Benning wins 2018 MSU Innovator of the Year Award with John Ohlrogge

Dr. Christoph Benning and Dr. John Ohlrogge have won the MSU Innovation Center’s 2018 Innovators of the Year award.

The scientists were recognized at the 8th annual Michigan State University Innovation Celebration on April 19. The event showcases innovative Spartan technologies and startups. It also honors MSU researchers and students who reported an invention, licensed a technology, or obtained patents during the academic year. Awardees receive plaques and cash prizes.

The scientists won for identifying the WRINKELD1 gene and developing its use to engineer plant oils and lipids. Benning is MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory director. Ohlrogge is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Plant Biology

WRINKLED 1 is a genetic switch that allows plants to accumulate seed oil (vegetable oil). Plant seed oil is both a basic food component and a precursor for biodiesel production.

“The foundation was laid when I isolated a mutant of Arabidopsis towards the end of my PhD at MSU. It had wrinkled seeds, reduced oil, and high sugar content,” said Benning.

Following a five-year stint in Germany, Benning returned to a faculty position at MSU. Along with Alex Cernac, a post-doc in his lab, he isolated the gene responsible for the mutant’s defect. It encodes a key transcriptional switch that allows researchers to engineer oil content in plant seeds and other tissues.

“As part of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, and even before its inception, John Ohlrogge and I have continuously collaborated on determining how WRINKLED1 activates the many genes required for oil accumulation in different plants. We have also worked on translating this knowledge into designing new biofuel crops,” Benning continued.

“Plant oils are essential for human nutrition and one of the most valuable of all agricultural commodities,” Ohlrogge said. “Having two labs study plant lipid biosynthesis has earned MSU a reputation as a world leading research center in this field. This repute has attracted many top scientists to join our labs.”

MSU owns several patents on WRINKLED1 – with Benning and/or Ohlrogge listed as inventors – thanks to the MSU Innovation Center.

“Translating basic discoveries into applications for the greater benefit of all is very challenging,” Benning said. “Working with MSU Technologies, especially Tom Herlache, has paved the path that eventually leads to the gene being commercialized. I am deeply grateful to all who have contributed to this project. These include Alex Cernac, John Ohlrogge, Tom Herlache, and countless students and postdocs, many who now enjoy successful careers in biotech and academia.”

Ohlrogge added, “Christoph Benning and I have had a great working relationship for more than 15 years. I think that has helped many of our students and postdocs see how valuable collaborations can be for scientific progress.”

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