World Food Prize shared by Syngenta Biotechnology founder

Jun. 20, 2013 @ 03:27 PM

A pioneer in plant genetics engineering, the Research Triangle Park-based researcher Mary-Dell Chilton was named Wednesday as the recipient of an award for improving the quality, quantity or availability of food.

“I’m tickled to pieces,” the 74-year-old said in reaction to the announcement naming her as a 2013 World Food Prize Laureate. Created in 1986, the award is known as the “Nobel Prize for food and agriculture.” The award comes with a $250,000 cash prize.

Chilton and two other scientists received this year’s award. All were honored for early plant genetic engineering research. In the 1980s, Chilton and researchers at Washington University at St. Louis used a bacterial plasmid to insert DNA from yeast into a tobacco plant’s DNA, creating a “transgenic plant.”

In 1983, she was recruited to the business that would become Syngenta Biotechnology. The Research Triangle Park-based subsidiary of the Swiss agribusiness company now works to develop genetic traits for crops in order to boost yield, to increase resistance to disease or insects, or build tolerance for conditions such as drought.

Alongside Syngenta employees on Wednesday, Chilton watched a live broadcast of the award announcement. The presentation included an address by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“It takes a great many disciplines together to make a genetically modified plant,” Chilton said to employees following the presentation. “Long may they live and may we make bigger and better ones.”

Chilton was recruited in 1983 to work at the company that would become Syngenta after a series of mergers. That year, her research team announced the findings of their plant genetic engineering research at a conference in Miami.

Two other groups also had announced research into the use of bacteria to insert genes into plants at the same event that year. On Wednesday, scientists with those groups from Ghent, Belgium and from Monsanto Corp., also were announced as recipients of the World Food Prize.

However, Chilton claims that her team as “so far ahead” of the others that they had the children and grandchildren of their transgenic plants.

“We made the first genetically engineered plant that had the package of genes that we put in that hadn’t suffered any deletion – nothing bad had happened,” she said in a phone interview. “Other people got plants that had accidentally deleted part of the package. Other people’s plants involved, kind of, acts of God. Whereas ours was an act of engineering; we got exactly what we put in.”

Chilton said she transitioned from academia to the business world because of a need to access agriculture resources.

“Here I was, back at Washington University at St. Louis, with really no access to people who knew agriculture,” she said, adding that she didn’t know much about crops and genes would be wanted in them. “I was not a farm kid.”

At the time she was recruited to the company, she said they knew the technology was going to work, but it was in its infancy. They could see that they could make plants for use in agriculture, she said, but they had “no idea” how hard it would be.

She came to North Carolina because the company’s agriculture division was headquartered in Greensboro. She said she believes some officials wanted to locate the agricultural biotechnology labs in the Triangle to be close to the universities.

Now, Chilton said her research at the company is focused on gene targeting. The current technology inserts genes into “many different places,” she said, while her work involves research into the insertion of genes into targeted locations.

Company researchers have worked more on single-gene traits in the past. Now she believes their work will focus more on multi-gene traits that affect plants in more complex ways.

In reaction to questions about the controversial aspects of plant genetic engineering work including the growing resistance in weeds or insects, Chilton said resistance predates biotechnology.

“It’s not a new thing, it’s not a new process, it’s survival of the fittest, it’s happened since the beginning of agriculture,” she said.

Chilton said the problem will not be solved, but instead is managed through rotation and introduction of different solutions.

“What we’re doing about it is, new traits are being developed, and the occurrence of resistance is going to keep us in business for a long time,” she said.

In October, she and the two award recipients will formally receive the award at a ceremony in Iowa.