By Kathryn McConnell
While in school in Hinsdale, Illinois, Mary-Dell Chilton took a series of standardized academic aptitude tests. After the tests, an evaluator told Chilton she did so well on the science portion that some examiners thought perhaps she had cheated.
She had not. In fact, the experience interested Chilton so much that her curiosity about how things work expanded. Soon, Chilton said in an interview, “everything was science.”
Chilton began to study biology, built her own telescope to learn optics, became a finalist for a prestigious national science award, and studied biology and chemistry at the University of Illinois, eventually getting a doctoral degree. She went on to become a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and began to study a disease that can cause tumors to grow in plants.
She learned that a gene that caused the disease could move from a bacterium into a plant. “It was the first time anyone saw an organism from one kingdom transfer its DNA into another organism from another kingdom,” according to a video produced by the professional association Women in Technology International. That finding “shook the scientific world,” the video says.
Then, “in an astounding feat of genetic engineering,” Chilton discovered how to remove harmful genes from a bacterium and insert other, beneficial genes. “She had an amazing insight … that promises to transform agriculture with a new green revolution,” the video says. Her work helped establish the field of genetic engineering of foods and plants.
Along with American Robert Fraley and Belgium native Marc Van Montagu, Chilton was named in June as winner of the 2013 World Food Prize, the foremost international award that recognizes individuals who have advanced the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. Chilton will receive the 27th annual award October 17 at the Borlaug International Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa. The three are being recognized for “revolutionary biotechnology discoveries that unlocked the key to plant cell transformation.”
Chilton established one of the world’s first large agricultural biotechnology programs, leading applied research in disease and pest resistance. In 1996, as a result of Chilton’s work, Syngenta, formerly known as Ciba-Geigy, became the first company to commercialize a genetically engineered trait in maize. Now, nearly 30 countries grow biotechnology-enhanced crops on more than 170 million hectares, 6 percent more land than was planted in biotech in 2011 and 100 times more than the area planted in 1996, the first year biotech crops became commercially available, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
“It is wonderful that the World Food Prize Committee has chosen to recognize biotechnology in this way. It’s clear from the statistics, from the acres of biotech-modified crops, that the technology has really taken off with amazing, remarkable speed,” said Chilton, who is principal scientist at the sustainable agriculture giant Syngenta Biotechnology Inc. in Durham, North Carolina. Because of their increased yields using fewer pesticides, biotech crops significantly contribute to global food security.
“During the last 60 years, the science of molecular genetics, also referred to as New Genetics, has opened up uncommon opportunities for shaping the future of agriculture, industry, medicine and environment protection,” said M.S. Swaminathan, chair of the World Food Prize Laureate Selection Committee. He called the three 2013 laureates “pioneers of the New Genetics” who have opened up opportunities for producing the amount of nutritious food the world demands.