In the Vanguard
Chilton received the honor because of her work that led to the development of the first genetically modified (GM) crops. Her groundbreaking molecular research showed how scientists could insert genes from another organism into plant cells to produce crop varieties with innovative traits - traits that could protect plants from environmental stresses, enhance yield, improve nutritional content and complement traditional plant breeding in very precise ways. As a result, Ciba-Geigy - now Syngenta - became the first company to commercialize a GM trait in corn.
That milestone was reached in 1996. Almost 20 years later, the ripple effect of Chilton's initial work has expanded greatly to include more than 420 million acres of GM crops grown around the world by 17 million growers - 90 percent of whom are resource-poor farmers in developing countries.
"What began as curiosity-driven fundamental research has now found worldwide application in agriculture with the promise of benefitting all mankind," Chilton says. "The committee's decision to award the World Food Prize to biotechnology researchers will help consumers understand the value, utility and safety of genetically engineered crops. I am both humbled and extremely grateful for this honor."
Chilton's passion for molecular biology was first ignited when she was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in the 1950s, an era when few women went to college, much less pursued doctorates in research science. Through the years, Chilton tried to carefully balance her dual roles as a scientist and mother, often pouring over calculations at the kitchen table as her children slept.
Today, her devoted grandchildren on both U.S. coasts and the high-yielding genetics in the ever-expanding Syngenta portfolio are evidence that her balancing act was a success. Now in her 70s, she continues to work in her lab at the Syngenta RTP facility in the building named in her honor.
"At Syngenta, our purpose is ‘Bringing plant potential to life,'" says Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, Ph.D., head of Biotechnology at Syngenta. "No one better exemplifies this than Mary-Dell Chilton. Her trailblazing research in biotechnology has transformed agriculture, helping farmers grow more from less to meet the needs of a growing world population in a sustainable way."