Rutgers professor reflects on contributions to medicine, agriculture

By Dan Corey

More than 40 years after cracking the genetic code, Rutgers microbiologist Joachim Messing does not regret his decision to help save lives and not cash in.

Messing, director of the Rutgers Waksman Institute of Microbiology, has entered his 31st year at the University after setting the foundation for creating synthetic human proteins, such as insulin, along with reducing world hunger with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

A German immigrant, Messing arrived at Rutgers in 1985 when former University President Edward J. Bloustein recruited him to further develop the University’s life science programs.

The year 1985 was good for those studying life science at Rutgers, because both the University and the state of New Jersey provided support through capital improvements and active recruitment efforts, Messing said.

“America was very much supportive of young people — young scientists — whereas the German system was very hierarchical,” he said. “It was good to be on the top, but (there) was a complicated path to get there.”

Most notably, Messing founded the University’s Department of Genetics and the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. But accomplishing these feats was not an easy process.

Messing’s love of experimentation has its roots in a children’s chemistry set that allowed him to measure the pH levels of solutions, among other elementary practices, he said.

“I like to experiment,” he said. “(But) my father was a mason, and he was really disappointed that I wanted to go into the sciences. He thought that I should at least be an architect — that would have been closer, or an engineer.”

Before immigrating to the U.S., Messing was a pharmacy student and doctoral candidate in biochemistry. But his success truly has its roots in his childhood struggling with food insecurity in postwar Germany.

“My mother told (my son) that she couldn’t nurse me beyond the first month, because there was nothing to eat,” he said. “People can’t imagine how tough life was right after (World War II).”

In what he deemed as an “interesting” turn of events, Messing’s discovery of “shotgun” DNA sequencing allowed him to set the foundation for food and medical biotechnology that helped reduce global food insecurity.

Messing’s research found that short pieces of DNA can be deciphered by relying on structural overlaps and the complementary nature of the DNA molecular structure, he said. Geneticists can then randomly sequence these molecules in parallel, using a computer program to find which pieces fit together.

Messing’s breakthrough allowed scientists to genetically engineer plants using foreign genes, particularly for soybeans, which was critical because soybeans are a major protein provider for livestock, which in turn are providers of animal protein for humans.

The Rutgers microbiologist’s foundation for GMO usage helped fill China’s increased demand for protein from livestock — a demand that reflected a change in Chinese eating habits following the nation’s economic revolution, Messing said.

“We had to generate the same amount of soybeans on the same amount of land, with the amount of water,” he said. “The soybean yield has increased from genetically modified soybeans so tremendously that we were able to meet the demand.”

The same biotechnology associated with shotgun DNA sequencing and plant GMOs also proved to be helpful for creating synthetic proteins for medical purposes, such as interferon for leukemia and blood protein for cancer patients, Messing said.

“When I came up with the way to purify these DNA (strands), it also laid the foundation for the early biotechnology history in purifying certain proteins people need to (treat) certain conditions,” he said.

Before Messing’s breakthrough, insulin for diabetes patients was purified from swine pancreas because that was considered the closest relative to human insulin. The tools and methods Messing created allowed humans to get human insulin for the first time, he said.

Shotgun DNA sequencing also made it easier to create erythropoietin, a rare protein that is used for cancer patients to restore white blood cells after they are killed off during chemotherapy, Messing said.

By not patenting his research and making it freely available to the agricultural and medical industries, Messing chopped about five years off the development time for genetic engineering, saving thousands of lives as a result, he said.

“I enjoy seeing that I can help people. It’s very (satisfying) to know that many people I’ve never seen — that I will never see — are well off because of what I did,” he said. “What could be more gratifying?”

Increasing the world’s food supply has been extremely beneficial for fulfilling the world’s protein demand as a result of global population growth, which tripled the global population since Messing was born, he said.

But the use of genetically modified organisms has also stirred quite a controversy.

It is unacceptable to claim that GMOs are unsafe not only because it is untrue, but also because that idea caters to a real human fear of harming their health without realizing, Messing said. This “inaccurate” information is worsening the global food shortage and inhibiting progress.

“This is (becoming) a crime against humanity because the consequences of this uneducated debate is that many people actually die,” he said. “To scare people that something is dangerous is the best method of persuading people to pay more money.”

The practice of agriculture is 10,000 years old, and since its inception, farmers have been trying to make improvements, Messing said. More contemporary advancements in biotechnology have been called into question because of the accelerated pace of development.

“It’s just not possible to meet the demand (for) food without this new technology,” he said. “It is really not much different than the one that was applied before.”

Along with wanting to stay relatively close to his three grandchildren in Washington, D.C., Messing continues to work at Rutgers because he wants to address inaccurate perceptions of his contributions to medicine and agriculture, while teaching the next generation to do a better job than he did.

The most important role that educators play is training students to have independent minds, Messing said. It is important for professors to have the courage to tell students the truth, as harsh as it may sound.

One of Messing’s proudest moments as a professor was finding out that two of his students became successful in business and law after he persuaded them not to continue in the life sciences when they were “not suited for medical school,” he said.

“There are small increments that everyone can make,” he said. “It’s not that you have to have such a large impact, or so much luck as I have had. But you can still try to make a small difference.”

Full story online at The Daily Targum