Chilton Honored for Creating First Genetically Modified Plant

Chilton Honored for Creating First Genetically Modified Plant

April 23, 2014
Food Quality & Nutrition  Food Security 

When Mary-Dell Chilton, 2013 World Food Prize Laureate, enrolled in her first biology class, she surprised her teachers with a stellar score on the national science exam. Little did anyone know at the time the significance of this score … she would become one of the founders of modern biotechnology.

Chilton’s aptitude for math and science growing up led her to major in biochemistry in college. She then developed a passion for molecular genetics and plant biotechnology while pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois, U.S.A.
After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, Chilton accepted a faculty position at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., in 1979. She led a faculty research team in creating the first genetically modified tobacco plant. Her work demonstrated that genes from other living organisms can be transferred into plants, allowing for more precise genetic improvements than traditional plant breeding. This groundbreaking research earned Chilton the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Sciences for 2002, putting her among the ranks of past laureates Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein.

In 1983, Chilton joined Ciba-Geigy Corporation, now known as Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc., and held a variety of roles, including vice president of agricultural biotechnology and principal scientist. She established one of the world’s first agricultural biotechnology programs, leading applied research in areas such as disease and insect resistance and improving transformation systems in crop plants. In 2002, Syngenta opened the Mary-Dell Chilton Center – an administrative and conference facility in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Today, she continues to oversee the application of modern biotechnology to crop improvement as a distinguished science fellow at Syngenta.

“I am deeply honored, both personally and on behalf of a great many colleagues and collaborators with whom I have shared this intellectual adventure,” Chilton says. “It is gratifying that our work, which started as curiosity-driven fundamental research, has now found worldwide application in agriculture with the promise of benefitting all mankind. The committee’s decision to award the World Food Prize to biotechnology researchers will help convey to consumers the value, utility and safety of genetically modified crops.”