The Passion Behind Plant Science

The Passion Behind Plant Science

By Dennis Gonsalves, Emeritus Professor of Plant Pathology at Cornell University and retired former director of the Daniel K. Inouye USDA Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hawaii.

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Dennis Gonsalves

As a plant scientist, I’ve always felt that my job is to address problems. While working on my MS degree, my professor told me something that has always stuck with me: “Don’t just be a test tube scientist.  Do something to help people.”  And I took it to heart. Focusing on the potential positive impact our work could have on society helped motivate me and the rest of our research team as we worked for nearly 20 years on saving Hawaii’s papaya industry from the ringspot virus.

Papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) has always been a threat to papayas — there is no cure, aphids easily spread the virus, and infected papaya trees rapidly lose productivity.  In the 1990s, the $11 million Hawaiian papaya industry was nearly decimated when the virus halved the amount of papayas produced in just six years.   As a plant pathologist and Hawaii native, solving this problem was critical and personal for me. Saving a crop that is a major source of income, industry, national pride, and nutrition was not just an academic exercise — our work and scientific research had real world implications that made people’s lives better.

As passionate as I was about finding a way to protect Hawaii’s papayas, I realized that results don’t come quickly.  In this case, it took nearly two decades of hard work and an enormous amount of patience — a daunting task not for the faint of heart.

Trying to get out ahead of the disease, we started working on this project in 1978, looking at crop protection methods and searching for wild varieties of papaya that had a natural resistance to the virus.  It wasn’t until 1991 that we developed a biotech papaya line that was resistant to the devastating virus. This biotech line started with great success in the greenhouse and then moved into controlled field trials.

In 1992, we conducted a regulated quarter acre field trial of biotech PRSV-resistant papaya on Oahu Island at the University of Hawaii experiment station.    Within eight months, we saw the papaya trees were strong and healthy and knew that this biotech crop was working.

Despite these successes, we were still a long way from getting the seeds to the people who needed them most—the farmers. It took five more years to get all of the necessary approvals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  But we did it, and finally delivered PRSV-resistant papayas to farmers in 1998.

Back then, a number of farmers, community members and activists were skeptical that we could get the biotech papaya to the growers.  From conducting the research and finding a solution, working through the regulatory system, and getting the papaya to the marketplace, they claimed it was an uphill battle. Additionally, the doubters did not think that the industry could get the intellectual property rights to use the seeds on a large-scale.  However, on May 1, 1998 the papaya industry distributed seeds of the PRSV-resistant papaya free to the growers.

It was the sheer force of will exhibited by our team that got this done.  Almost 20 years of painstaking research, trial and error, and working with all of the different groups involved, from farmers to government agencies, would have been extremely daunting if we were not focused on the end-goal: remembering the impact we were going to have on farmers, consumers, and our community.

Although today’s plant scientists are tackling new problems — population growth that will mean more mouths to feed; the impact climate change can have on temperature and growing conditions; new diseases that could mean the extinction of common and staple crops — they are still working on solutions that will help people, achieve a stable food supply, and prevent hunger and starvation.  Plant scientists may wear lab coats and play with test tubes, but we are motivated by the same things that we all feel: a desire to help others, protect our natural resources, and solve big problems. It is that focus and passion that drives scientists toward solutions that makes a difference and changes lives.