Hope Hart: Proven Ag Researcher and Developer

Syngenta scientist commits her career to innovative ag technologies and the understanding of their safety.
Hope Hart: Proven Ag Researcher and Developer
Hope Hart inspects corn growing at the Syngenta Advanced Crop Lab in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
Hope Hart vividly remembers her game-changing research moment. It was 2000, and she was standing in a Bloomington, Illinois, cornfield, infested with corn rootworm (CRW). At the time, she was a scientist in the insect-control group at Syngenta and was field testing the Agrisure Duracade® trait.

“After shaking a stalk of corn in the control group, I watched as it fell listlessly to the ground,” she says. “All the roots had been chewed away.” But the stalks of corn with the Agrisure Duracade trait, containing the active protein she’d helped discover, held firm.

Riveting Research

For more than 20 years, Hart has helped bring growers innovative Syngenta technologies that address some of their toughest challenges. Her agricultural roots, however, date back even further. Hart grew up in Moore County, North Carolina, and worked on her uncle’s tobacco farm. She always loved plants, so when she went to University of North Carolina at Charlotte to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology and then to North Carolina State University (NCSU) for her master’s in microbiology, no one from her small community was surprised.

Shortly after graduation from NCSU in 1995, she landed a job at a Syngenta legacy company, working in a research lab where she explored molecular biology, microbiology and plant biology. A few years later, she began the journey that led to her aha moment in the Illinois cornfield. Hart, along with the Syngenta biostress traits group led by Eric Chen, Ph.D., were experimenting with the active protein mCry3A found in the first-generation CRW trait from Syngenta—Agrisure® RW. They knew the trait was effective against CRW, but they wanted to determine if it could control additional pests.

“We are creating food that is safe for everyone’s children—including our own.”

Hope Hart
What the team found instead was a unique protein, eCry3.1Ab. It proved to be extremely effective against CRW in a different manner than the mCry3A protein. When the larva ingests eCry3.1Ab, the protein produced in the corn cells binds to specific protein receptors in the gut of the larva, resulting in a fatal hole forming inside the insect’s gut membrane.

This discovery was groundbreaking because CRW is the most destructive insect in the history of U.S. corn production, costing growers more than $1 billion each year. CRW’s adaptability has amazed scientists—and frustrated growers. But a 2011 USDA study reported a 99.79 percent reduction of adult beetle emergence in Agrisure Duracade corn, which contains the eCry3.1Ab protein.

Safe Development

Today, Hart works as a team leader in the product safety department leading a team that characterizes the DNA that is inserted into the plant cells. She and the product safety group study if the crops are as safe for the environment as non-GM crops and safe for humans and animals to eat before they go to market.

“In a GM crop, Syngenta adds a handful of genes into a plant that has about 30,000 genes,” Hart says. “We conduct between 80 and 100 studies on GM crops to make sure that small change in DNA does not impact the safety of the crop before growers can plant those crops.”

Hart is passionate about helping consumers understand that GM corn plants are still corn plants. “I think people are afraid of GM products because they don’t understand them,” she says. “Early on, our industry could have done a better job explaining what a GM crop is. But when we were first introducing GM crops into the market, the sentiment was that we didn’t need to explain them since they were safe and just like conventional crops. This was, unfortunately, an underestimation of what people understood and how people would react to them. Now a lack of understanding is what we’re working to repair.”

Scientist devotes her career to innovating new ag technologies. #WomenInAg

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Hart serves as a contributing expert to the Council for Biotechnology’s GMO Answers, an interactive website designed to field consumers’ questions about GM crops and how GM food is grown. Syngenta is a member of the council, and Hart volunteers her time to the website.

“At Syngenta, we are people who live, eat and feed our children in this society, just like the general consumer,” Hart says. “We are in the business of feeding the world, and we are creating food that is safe for everyone’s children—including our own.”