NatSci's Benning and Ohlrogge share 2018 MSU Innovator of the Year Award

  • Apr 22, 2018
  • Award, Faculty, Plant science, research
  • Homepage News, Alumni, Faculty & Staff, Research, Students, Biochemistry, College of Natural Science, Plant Biology, Plant Research Laboratory

Image of Christoph Benning next to his banner at the MSU Innovation Celebration

Christoph Benning, MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory director, stands next to the award banner honoring him and John Ohlrogge, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of plant biology, for their work on identifying the WRINKLED1 gene and developing its use for the engineering of plant oils and lipids. Photo courtesy of Katie Stiefel.

Two faculty members from the College of Natural Science (NatSci) were among the honorees recognized by the MSU Innovation Center at the 8th annual Michigan State University Innovation Celebration on April 19.

The MSU Innovation Celebration is an annual showcase of innovative Spartan technologies and startups; it also honors MSU researchers and students who have reported an invention, licensed a technology or were awarded patents during the academic year.

Christoph Benning, MSU Foundation Professor and director of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, and John Ohlrogge, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Plant Biology, were named the 2018 Innovators of the Year for their work identifying the WRINKELD1 gene and developing its use for the engineering of plant oils and lipids.

WRINKLED 1 serves as a genetic switch, turning on the accumulation of plant seed oil (vegetable oil)—which is both a basic food component and a precursor for biodiesel production.

“The foundation for this work was laid when I isolated a mutant of Arabidopsis with wrinkled seeds and reduced oil and high sugar content (Arabidopsis raisins) toward the end of my Ph.D. work at MSU,” said Benning, who holds joint appointments in the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Plant Biology. He is also an MSU AgBioResearch scientist.

Following a five-year stint in Germany, Benning returned to a faculty position at MSU and, along with Alex Cernac, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, isolated the gene responsible for the defect in the mutant. The gene encodes a key transcriptional switch that allows researchers to engineer the 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 the mechanism by which WRINKLED1 activates the many genes required for oil accumulation in different plants, and 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 at MSU that focus on plant lipid biosynthesis has earned MSU a reputation as a world-leading research center in this field which, in turn, has attracted many top scientists to join our labs.”

MSU now owns a number of patents on the WRINKLED1 gene—with Benning and/or Ohlrogge listed as inventors—thanks to the work of the MSU Innovation Center.

“Translating basic discoveries into applications to the greater benefit of all is very challenging,” Benning said. “Working with MSU Technologies has paved the path that eventually will lead to the commercialization of the WRINKLED1 gene. I am deeply grateful to all who have contributed to this project over the years, including Alex Cernac, John Ohlrogge, Tom Herlache and countless students and postdocs—many who now enjoy successful careers in biotech and academia.”

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

Awardees were presented with plaques and cash prizes.

The event also showcased other technologies and startups from MSU students and faculty members. For more information about the MSU Innovation Celebration, including images and videos of the winners, visit


Banner image: The 8th annual MSU Innovation Celebration was held on April 19 at the Huntington Club in Spartan Stadium. Photo courtesy of Katie Stiefel, Moonsail North.

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