This month marks the 30th anniversary of the first successful introduction of a foreign gene into a plant (L. Herrera-Estrella et al. Nature 303, 209–213; 1983). To overcome today's huge agricultural hurdles, we should move to a model that combines the best features of transgenic technology with those of organic and conventional farming.

Genetic engineering has revolutionized fundamental plant research and accelerated strategic improvements in crops. More than 170 million hectares of genetically modified crops were grown worldwide last year, to the benefit of the environment and society (see

These achievements are founded on pioneering studies from 1947, when plant pathologist Armin Braun suggested that DNA from Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a bacterium that infects plants, could induce plant tumours. Subsequent work (1974–80) by the groups of Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell in Belgium, Mary-Dell Chilton in the United States and Rob Schilperoort in the Netherlands revealed that A. tumefaciens delivers a segment of its DNA into the plant's nuclear DNA using a plasmid-integration system — one of the earliest discoveries of a natural DNA-transfer mechanism. In May 1983, the Van Montagu and Schell lab deployed this system as a gene-expression vector, and the first transgenic plants became fact.