You might not know her name, but Mary-Dell Chilton, a newly anointed National Academy of Inventors Fellow, is at least partially responsible for the way our food system works today.
That’s because Chilton, now 77 and a scientist at Syngenta, led the team in the early 1980s that produced the world’s first transgenic plant – a development that paved the way for the disease and pest-resistant GMO crops that are so prevalent today. Tech Insider caught up with Chilton to get her thoughts on mentoring other scientists, the controversy over GMOs, and what the future holds.
On the controversy over GMO technology
When Chilton was first researching the possibilities of using a type of bacteria called Agrobacterium for DNA transfer in plants, she never imagined that her work would lead to an agricultural revolution – and she certainly didn’t think it would be the topic of constant debate.
“I understood there weren’t any real safety issues. The problem is that people are creating the illusion of safety issues to make problems for the product. They do this for a variety of reasons,” says Chilton, who started her GMO research at Washington University in St. Louis and continued at the company that would eventually become biotech giant Syngenta.
“In many cases, opponents of the technology are opposed to large companies being involved in the seed business. I like to tell people that the technology is safe, that we learned it from a microbe that did it in nature. Although the technology is new in another sense it’s really old. Agrobacteria has been doing it for centuries.”
On the future of GMOs
Chilton, a 2013 winner of the World Food Prize, still doesn’t think the potential of GMO technology has been realized, even though the vast majority of cotton, soy, canola, corn, and sugar beats in the US are genetically modified.
“Everybody in this field is concerned about perception. I think that’s going to be the main issue, not the technology. The technology is going to get better and better, and we’ll be able to do anything we want,” says Chilton. “The need will get greater and greater. If climate change is really the problem we’re afraid it is, we’re going to need plant breeding to deal with rapid changes in growth conditions, with pests that attack our plants.”
For her part, Chilton still does GMO research at Syngenta, where she works in a building that has a portrait of her on the wall. “I do experiments at the bench, which is my idea of fun,” she says.
Chilton’s research, which she has been working on for the last half decade, involves gene targeting (which scientists use to modify specific parts of a plant’s genome).
“The hope is that we would get a good transgenic plant every time instead of having to make many to find one that performs. That’s the dream.”
On being a woman in science and creating ‘The Chilton Hilton’
Despite the fact that she started out in science at a time when women were few and far between, Chilton says she rarely thought about her gender. “I was just interested in my science,” she says.
But once she found success, Chilton never shied away from mentoring young scientists – both male and female. “My husband was a Fulbright Scholar and spent a year living with a family in Germany. That inspired him as a young chemist, and he wanted to give other young scientists an experience like that,” Chilton explains. “We started a program of having young scientists living in our house for a year, 6 months, 3 months, and working with our lab. It was more than 25 students who lived with us over the years. They called it ‘The Chilton Hilton.'”
This is the achievement that Chilton is most proud of.
“I suppose whether I was here or not someone would have done this science, but the kids I’ve had a personal hand in training,” she says.