Biotech #FoodHeroes: Mary-Dell Chilton

Mary-Dell Chilton

Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton has often been called the “Queen of Agrobacterium.”

But the now-retired distinguished science fellow at Syngenta isn’t one to put on regal airs, even as she pioneers advances in agriculture and paves the way for other women to succeed in science.

That’s because Chilton values teamwork. She duly credits her former colleagues at Washington University for their contribution to launching crop biotechnology. Together, they manipulated a plant pathogen known as Agrobacterium tumefaciens to create the first genetically modified (transgenic) plant.

“Teamwork at every step was essential to this project,” Chilton says. “This required excellent interpersonal interactions, character, trust, energy and intelligent decisions from each participant. This was a totally human endeavor, and it drew on the best in each member of the team.”

 

“I am most proud of my people!  Teamwork at every step was essential to this project.  This required excellent interpersonal interactions, character, trust, energy, and intelligent decisions from each participant.  This was a totally human endeavor, and it drew on the best in each member of the team.  I am most proud of my people.”

 

Chilton wasn’t always big on bacteria. Her scientific universe initially revolved around DNA — its chemistry, biochemistry, replication, repair and ability to move around. But as she and her team worked with Agrobacterium, they discovered it transfers part of its DNA — now called T-DNA — to its host plant cells.


“We copied that process, replacing T-DNA with genes of our choice,” Chilton recalls. “In a real sense, my team and I had the good fortune to be present at the birth of plant biotechnology, and indeed to have a hand in it.”

Scientists have continued to build on her groundbreaking discovery, introducing genes that help plants tolerate drought conditions and resist diseases and pests, and the World Food Prize formally recognized her achievements as a one of three co-recipients of the Prize in 2013.

As one of the founders of modern crop biotechnology, Chilton is convinced of its safety. “The products of this process are tested far more exhaustively than any other products in the supermarket,” she explains. “The process is a natural one. It is precise.”