Rutgers remembers groundbreaking director of microbiology
Dr. Joachim Messing, the director of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers and a microbiologist scientist who made groundbreaking developments in molecular genetics, died Friday, Sept. 13, according to an article on Rutgers Today. He was 73.
Messing, who came to Rutgers in 1985, was best known for his advances in life sciences. His studies helped provide solutions for environmental sustainability and developments in fixing world hunger. Despite his findings, like the one that cracked the genetic code of humans and plants, Messing did not patent his work. Instead, he offered it for free, according to the article.
“I thought it was important to be generous and make this freely available without restrictions so biotechnological innovations could move forward,” Messing said after discovering a technique for genetically engineering plants, according to an article on NJ Advance Media in 2013.
His discovery created genetically stronger strains of cotton and soybeans that could withstand strong toxins and herbicides, according to the article.
“If I had patented this, things wouldn’t have moved as fast,” he said, according to the article.
Born in postwar Germany to working class parents, Messing experienced food insecurity firsthand, an experience that would later mold his ambitions in genetically modifying food. His father, a mason, wanted Messing to pursue the family business, or at least architecture. Instead, Messing studied pharmacy due to the variety of sciences it covered. He was the first in his family to go to college.
“You had to learn how to look under the microscope and draw cells,” Messing said in an interview with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) in 2016. “You had to learn about the different pathways in plants that make important substances that could be used for therapy … you had everything.”
Messing continued to get his doctorate in biochemistry from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he started research for “shotgun sequencing” of DNA, which pioneered cloning technology, according to the article.
In 1985, Messing was recruited by then-University President Edward J. Bloustein for the University’s life sciences program. Messing capitalized on opportunities not available for scientists in Germany, telling The Daily Targum that capital improvements and recruitment efforts made research easier for him in America.
“America was very much supportive of young people — young scientists — whereas the German system was very hierarchical,” he said at the time. “It was good to be on the top, but there was a complicated path to get there.”
His litany of research at Rutgers included optimizing soybean yields with genetic modification, purifying DNA strands to pioneer early biotechnology and more. One discovery of his allowed more amino acids to naturally occur in corn, rather than being chemically added.
“Instead of depending on fossil fuels to synthesize a supplement — in this case methionine — in a factory, the sun can do it now through the plant itself,” he wrote in Digital Trends. “This switch saves billions of dollars added to our food costs.”
Those who worked with him recalled his unique drive, which consequently led to many of his discoveries.
“He has the mentality that whatever you are doing can be done,” said Marja Timmermans, a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory professor who worked with Messing as a lab technician, to NJ Advance Media. “He’s happy and enthusiastic and that excitement rubs off and creates a really positive, creative environment.”
Messing’s scientific career garnered him numerous honors. In 2007 he was accepted to the oldest scientific association in the world, the Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, and was a recipient of the Promega Biotechnology Research Award of the American Society for Microbiology in 2014. In 2013, then-Israeli president Shimon Peres presented Messing with the Wolf Prize in agriculture.
Still, Messing was indifferent to his accolades.
“The life of a scientist is fascinating,” he said. “And you can’t rest on your laurels.”
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