Pioneers of agriculture reflect on the genetically-engineered revolution
The fall of 2016 was an important milestone in the history of agriculture—the 20-year anniversary of the first large-scale harvest of a genetically engineered (GE) food crop. The crop in question was herbicide-tolerant soybeans, and their harvest marked a sea change for the farming industry. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around 94% of all the soybeans grown in the United States come from genetically modified seeds, and other GE crops (notably cotton, corn, canola, alfalfa, and sugar beets) see similar adoption rates.
To mark this anniversary and discuss its significance, the National Museum of American History and its Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation convened a panel with two of the scientists who helped make the GE revolution possible—Drs. Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley. The event, part of the Lemelson Center’s “Innovative Lives” series, was made possible by the generous support of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and its partners.
Chilton and Fraley might not be household names, but the effects of their scientific research are felt worldwide, from the food on our plates to the clothes that hang in our closets.
In the 1970s scientists discovered that the plant bacterium that causes crown gall disease—Agrobacterium tumefaciens—has the ability to insert genes into host plants using a circular strand of DNA called a plasmid. This discovery (which built upon an earlier generations’ research into the structure of DNA) laid the foundation for modern agricultural biotechnology, and it set off an international race within the field to see who could harness the bacterium for practical use.
As an organic-chemist-turned-DNA-hybridizer, Mary-Dell Chilton led a team at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, that in 1982 successfully used the agrobacterium to insert a gene of their choice into tobacco plants. Just as Chilton’s tobacco plants were coming to fruition, Robert Fraley’s team at Monsanto achieved the same feat, using the agrobacterium to deliver new genes into petunias. A third team at Ghent University in Belgium, led by scientists Jeff Schell and Marc Van Montagu, also managed to harness the agrobacterium. Together, these teams produced the world’s first genetically engineered plants. In the years that followed, Chilton and Fraley led the charge in the United States to apply this new method of gene manipulation to commercial crops.
Chilton and Fraley’s pathbreaking research was just one of the topics of conversation at the evening panel. Peter Liebhold, a curator in the museum’s Work and Industry division, interviewed both scientists on stage, describing the joint interview as an attempt at “doing oral history in front of a crowd.”
As the audience learned, Chilton and Fraley took very different routes to becoming pioneers of genetic engineering. Fraley grew up on a small farm in Illinois, which nurtured a lifelong interest in how science could reshape agriculture. “In many ways,” Fraley told the crowd, “I don’t think I’ve ever left farming.” Chilton, conversely, ended up working in the field because her scientific passion—DNA—naturally put her at the center of the then-emerging field of biotechnology. Both Chilton and Fraley emphasized the important role that their K-12 teachers played in convincing them to pursue careers in science. “Science kind of found me, but not until high school,” explained Chilton.
Much of the night’s discussion revolved around the nature of R&D in the United States, where scientists based in public universities often find themselves pursuing the same lines of research as their counterparts in private industry. As a young scientist, Fraley left academia and went to work in the private sector at Monsanto. Since the company also supported much university work, Fraley still ended up spending time in Chilton’s lab. There he gained insights and techniques as he raced against Chilton to successfully transfer genes between plant species.
When asked by Liebhold whether their pivotal scientific work was defined more by collaboration or competition, Fraley was equivocal: “It was a little bit of both.” As he explained, scientists from the public and private sector would gather throughout the year at various conferences: “We would sleep in these really tiny beds that were about this wide. We would party too late at night. . . . But Mary-Dell [Chilton] . . . would always get us up at 8:00. And we shared a huge amount of information . . . everyone benefited, and yet we would still compete really hard.”
The scientists highlighted that their breakthrough was just one small step in the larger journey toward commercial GE crops. As Chilton described, the scientific community found it “a little annoying how many more obstacles there were yet to be discovered. It wasn’t easy to go from the first genetically engineered tobacco or petunia plant to our real field crops.” Actually bringing the new technology to market was both time-consuming and expensive, which meant that most of the work was done by industrial teams with dedicated financial support, not universities. “Today,” observed Fraley, “the tools have gotten so much easier that startup companies and universities are much more able to participate. And I think when you look at the new advances like gene editing, that really opens the door for university science to really move into the crop and the agricultural world.”
There has been much public debate about the safety and effectiveness of GE crops and “GMOs” in general in the United States. These public controversies were discussed by the panelists at the end of the evening, as the conversation turned toward the legacy of their scientific work. For Fraley, the lesson of GE crops had implications for scientists and educators in a variety of fields. “You clearly have to have outstanding science to create the kind of products that consumers, in this case farmers, want and benefit from,” remarked Fraley, “but I think that the one thing we’ve really learned is, along with outstanding science, you have to have outstanding science communication. . . . Here we are living in a period where the advances in science continue to skyrocket. And the understanding and the communication of science just hasn’t kept up. And that’s, I think, our challenge.”
The full interview with Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley is available online on the museum’s YouTube channel, as well as below. If you’d like to hear about the latest food and agriculture history happenings at the museum, be sure to sign up for our Food History newsletter.
Jordan Grant is a New Media assistant working with the American Enterprise exhibition. He has also blogged about how curators interpret agriculture-themed board games in the museum’s collections.