Joachim Messing, among the world's top experts in molecular genetics, became famous for developing a genetic engineering technique used in laboratories to create plants that have produced disease-resistant crops considered vital to feeding the world's population.
Instead of cashing in on his discovery, he gave this scientific blueprint - which revolutionized agriculture and helped to crack the genetic code of plants like rice and corn - away for free to his fellow scientists around the world.
Messing, director of Rutgers University's Waksman Institute of Microbiology, chose to share his research because he believed it could result in more sustainable crops that would help to end hunger and conserve the environment.
"When I look at the products that have been made today, it is clear they were dependent on the tools that were developed many years ago," said Messing, the Selman A. Waksman Chair in Molecular Genetics at Rutgers. "I thought it was important to be generous and make this freely available without restrictions so biotechnological innovations could move forward."
For his contribution to humanity, Messing has been recognized by the Wolf Foundation of Israel and awarded the 2013 Wolf Prize in Agriculture. The Wolf Prize honors scientists and artists whose "achievements are in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among peoples."
The professor of molecular biology - who teaches undergraduates and mentors students in his laboratory - is being recognized for innovations in recombinant DNA cloning, more commonly known as genetic engineering, and for deciphering the genetic code of crop plants. He will share the $100,000 prize with Jared Diamond of the University of California, a scientist and Pulitzer Prize winner, who has written several best-sellers, including Guns, Germs and Steel.
Messing is among only eight recipients worldwide chosen to receive the prize awarded annually in agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, medicine/and or physics as well as the arts. He will receive the Wolf Prize in May from Israel President Shimon Peres at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament in Jerusalem. The Wolf Foundation was established in 1975 by the late German-born inventor, diplomat and philanthropist Ricardo Wolf, who served as the Cuban ambassador to Israel from 1961 to 1973.
"I am honored but this news was really a surprise," said Messing who received a phone call from Israel's Minister of Education on New Year's Day to tell him he had been selected. "I think it's important that this recognition is coming here to Rutgers because I am very proud of the work that is being done at our university."
For Messing, who came to Rutgers in 1985 to oversee research at the Waksman Institute, finding innovative methods that will allow for the development of superior crops with higher yields and nutritional quality - either through traditional breeding or genetic engineering - has been a priority.
"Since I was born, the world's population has doubled," said Messing, 66, whose published research became the most frequently cited among all of science in the 1980s, according to The Scientist, a national magazine covering life sciences and innovations. "This means we need more food on less land with less water."
The genetic engineering technique he gave away for free instead of patenting has been critical for the early biotechnology industry in agriculture but also in the development of new pharmaceuticals and the diagnostics of diseases.
Rutgers President Robert L. Barchi, a neuroscientist and neurologist, said he used many of the techniques pioneered by Messing in research he has conducted on the structure and function of voltage-gated ion channels in nerve and muscle, and on the role these critical molecules can play in human disease