Start-up Spawned by Rutgers Researcher’s Technology for Genetic Transformation in Plants -- Boosting Yields in Biofuels and Cereal Crops for Food Is the Goal

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Rutgers Professor Pal Maliga recently helped launch Plant Transformation Technologies LLC of Dallas based on his patented approaches to genetically transforming plastids, a key component of plants, to increase their value as food, fuels and product ingredients.

An accomplished scientist and teacher, Pal Maliga holds the highest faculty rank at Rutgers University: Professor II (distinguished professor). He also holds 17 patents and received the “Inventor of the Year” award this fall from the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame.

Now Maliga is commercializing his research, which is one of his long-held goals, through an alliance with a Texas start-up. Leveraging his novel techniques for genetically transforming plastids, a key component of plants, Maliga recently helped launch Plant Transformation Technologies LLC of Dallas ( He is chief scientific officer of the company, which is headed by Erich Spangenberg, founder and chairman of IP Navigation Group, also in Dallas.

"PTT is an exciting venture for us, bringing together Professor Maliga’s brilliance, Rutgers’ support for entrepreneurial endeavors, and IP Navigation Group's skills in analyzing and monetizing intellectual property,” Spangenberg said. “We look forward to working with industry, Rutgers and others to make Professor Maliga's work a tremendous commercial success. While our initial focus will be on maize (the corn family), we intend to expand into work with soybean and canola.”

As part of this collaborative effort, IP Navigation Group has committed $1 million to sponsor further research in maize by Maliga’s laboratory (

Plastid transformation has potential commercial applications in biopharmaceuticals, biomaterials, industrial products, biofuel, bioenergy, seeds and crops. The best-known plastids, chloroplasts, convert sunlight into chemical energy. Plastid engineering, in contrast to nuclear engineering, or conventional genetic modification, offers higher protein yields and the opportunity to express several genes controlling complex traits. The technology offers an environmental advantage in that its natural containment prevents transgene flow through pollen migration.

Maliga’s efforts to bring his research to the marketplace began nearly 30 years ago when he was research director at Advanced Genetics Sciences, a U.S. start-up company. He came to Rutgers in 1989 and established a lab in the university’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology. In recent years, two corporations have licensed Maliga’s technology and attempted to commercialize it. For both, business considerations stalled their efforts.

Martin Warren, professor and head of biochemistry at the University of Kent, is working with Maliga on using plastid transformation to help develop plants that produce vitamin B12, which does not occur in nature.“This is because plants neither make nor require vitamin B12 within their metabolism, “Warren says. “A consequence is that those on strictly vegetarian diets are prone to vitamin B12 deficiency – a state associated with a wide range of systems including megablasticanaemia, neurological disorders, and developmental problems in unborn babies.”
Warren notes that vitamin B12 deficiency also is a problem in the elderly, so there are many compelling medical reasons for increasing dietary vitamin B12 for people of all ages.

Alice Barkan, professor of biology at the University of Oregon’s Institute of Molecular Biology, says Maliga’s work in plastid transformation has real value for basic research. “A comprehensive understanding of chloroplast biology in plants will be essential to fully exploit chloroplasts for expression of foreign proteins, and to optimize plant productivity for biofuels and agronomic purposes,” Barkan says. The ability to engineer the maize plastid genome, Barkan says, will accelerate progress in understanding nuclear-chloroplast interactions and photosynthesis in all plants, and in particular, in plants that are major crop species.

The Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development promotes excellence in research at Rutgers and provides oversight for the education of the next generation of researchers. Research is fundamental to the university’s overall mission and enhances its education and service missions. Education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels is delivered by faculty directly involved in the discovery of new knowledge. Rutgers’ students and faculty bring their expertise to communities throughout New Jersey, the nation and the world, reaching out to elementary, middle and high schools, as well as to government, foundations, and the corporate community.

Research also contributes to economic development. Rutgers increasingly is engaged in commercialization of research through the transfer of new technologies to industry, contributing to economic development in New Jersey and nationally. From the discovery of streptomycin — the first cure for tuberculosis — to the technology behind, Rutgers continues to make a tremendous impact in the commercial world.


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Ed Tate
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