On the backdrop of the story from the The Theory of Everything TV series about molecular biologist Marc van Montagu, founder of Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, is the story of the birth of molecular genetics as a scientific field and of the most important and at the same time the most controversial product that stemmed from it. Genetically modified crops.
The 1960s. Long hair, flowery shirts and utopian ideas. While two fresh PhD graduates in biochemistry Marc van Montagu and Jeff Schell decide to set up a joint lab in a small room in Gent, they don’t know yet that in a few years they will give life to one such utopian idea. Their discovery of the mechanism by which agrobacterium tumefaciens releases cancerous growth in plants captures the whole world. Until then no one knew that a bacteria can transfer a part of its information to a plant’s DNA. Does it mean that it is possible to influence – and maybe even improve – the properties of plants?
You can read the interview with a scientist from Flemish Institute for Biotechnology Wim Grunewald who will give a lecture about research in VIB.
Since then the small lab in a small Belgian town has grown into a huge technological park which is considered the most important biotechnology institution in the world. During its existence Marc van Montagu’s team has come up with other new discoveries for which the head of their institution would surely deserve the Nobel prize. However, he never gets one. Maybe it’s because of politics – his work led to the creation of genetically modified plants whose implementation meets with severe resistance of environmental groups and politicians. Their “inventor” says that tough regulations hinder progress and harm the weakest – farmers in poor regions who could hope for a better life with the better crops.
Documentary films on genetically modified plants often stem from a critical position. The Theory of Everything does not hide it represents the opposite stance – the life work of Marc van Montagu does not deserve this critical attitude, its authors say. The film can be interesting for the audience not only as a short and interesting “edit” of the history of the still young scientific field which has brought fantastic discoveries, but also as summed up arguments in favour of the implementation of GM crops that are voiced by the most competent person.