Dr. Pamela Ronald on rice, gene editing, and a lifetime thinking of food (security) 

Food security is one of the biggest challenges of our time, and one PeakBridge is deeply focused on. How do you feed a projected 10 billion people in 2050, while also mitigating the effects of climate change? Dr. Pamela Ronald has made a major impact on both of those fronts. You might have seen her Ted Talk – along with 2 million other people – “The Case for Engineering Our Food,” which clearly struck a chord. Bill Gates dubbed her book “important for anyone who wants to learn about the science of seeds and the challenges faced by farmers.”


Dr. Ronald’s groundbreaking (and multi-award-winning) work includes engineering rice for resistance to disease and tolerance to flooding, paving the way for high-yield rice varieties grown by millions of farmers. Today, The Ronald Lab at UC Davis employs CRISPR genome editing, and studies genes that control resistance to disease and tolerance of environmental stress, to improve food security for the world’s poorest farmers. Nurit Ben sat down with her on the next frontier in food security, why gene editing isn’t nearly as risky as some may think, and how a unique family history shaped her path.


Most people may not think of rice as one of the most important foods in the world – but your groundbreaking work in in that crop has been game-changing for food security. How do you reflect on it nearly 3 decades later?  

What drew me to working on rice was that it’s a key staple food crop for half of the world’s people. And at the time I started, 30 plus years ago, there was a a huge group of people in Asia – scientists, breeders, working on rice. But it was sort of the beginning of modern genetics, so I was lucky to be part of the Rockefeller Rice Biotechnology Foundation group. And over time, there have been huge strides made, including the sophistication of people in many countries, for example India and China, who are far ahead in some ways of the United States in looking at rice genetics and developing new crops.


We know food security is an issue looming large for both developed and underdeveloped nations. Add to that the concerns over another future pandemic. What do you think the ‘next frontier’ is in addressing it? What are you excited about?

As plant biologists we hope to improve many crops we work on, and rice is a model for other key crops like wheat and corn. One of the big projects I’ve been privileged to take part in was developing flood-tolerant rice. It’s a project that was brought to scientists at the International Rice Research Institute by farmers who were losing much of their crop to flooding, because even though rice grows well in standing water, most rice varieties will die after three days. And so this launched an international collaboration ultimately leading to varieties now grown by farmers that can survive two weeks of complete submergence. There’s a lot of interest in this kind of climate-resilient crop given the expectation of more flooding in some areas, more drought in others, changing pests and pathogen populations.


We also have a project starting to engineer new genes for resistance. There are some bacteria and fungi and viruses that attack plants, and we have no way to control those infectious diseases. Someone in my lab is leading this effort to engineer completely new resistant chains from what we already have, and using sophisticated computer approaches to try to model what might be the most obvious way to engineer these genes. If successful, this will provide  farmers with seeds that are resistant to infectious diseases for which previously they had few tools for controlling.


What do you think is necessary to make the leaps that are needed right now?

I’d say the biggest need is fundamental knowledge on plant biology, because there are many new technologies like genome editing where we can tinker with genes and move them around or replace them. We can do really interesting things, but we need the fundamental knowledge first. You need to have some understanding about, for example, the genes controlling drought tolerance before you can devise ways to engineer and enhance drought tolerance or introduce these genes into varieties grown by farmers. So there is a enormous need for fundamental biology, and funding for that.


For the public, the idea of gene editing with CRISPR tends to evoke the same concerns people have over GMOs. What do you think people should understand about this tech and its potential? 

Virtually everything we eat has been genetically improved in some manner. There are many different types of genetic techniques, and every such technique or change made to a plant has some risk of unintended consequence. But those risks are very low and the risks of modern genetic approaches tend to be quite a bit lower than older techniques that are are still used. And I think that’s not really understood. There are techniques that have been used for even over 100 years to irradiate seed or dip it in a chemical solution and create random mutations. Then geneticists will sort through those plants and identify those carrying interesting traits. There are around 2500 varieties that we eat now that have been developed in that way. There’s a higher risk of unintended consequence with that kind of approach because the mutations are not characterized, whereas in modern genetic techniques typically you’ll have just one change.


Why is it so necessary to make these genetic changes in the first place?
So why are breeders developing new varieties, right? There’s always a need for innovation when it comes to farming, and that’s because farmers face huge challenges. They face environmental stresses, they can have a pathogen that will overtake their farm that they hadn’t seen in years before. So breeders are always trying to come up with some new variant that will do better on the farm. Whether it’s to resist infection or even just to taste better, or to look better, we have more people on the planet so it’s critical that we continue to innovate. And typically if you’ve got a toolbox, often the newer tools are going be better and more precise. There’s no reason to discard the most innovative approaches just because they’re new.


For example, the submergence-tolerant rice was developed using a genetic guided technology called marker-assisted breeding, which turns out to be much more efficient at creating a variety that farmers will accept. So at the International Rice Research Institute, they were able to introduce this very important gene which has been a huge success for farmers. Maybe 8-10 million farmers are now growing that rice, and they see a 60% yield increase. It’s hard sometimes for people who live in developed, high-income countries to understand what just one seed can do for a farm.


Your 2015 Ted Talk, “The Case for Engineering our Food,” has been viewed well over 2 million times and clearly struck a chord. What do you think has changed in the years since?

What’s changed is I think that young people are more concerned about climate change now and are more open and understanding that we need innovation in all aspects of our life, whether it’s developing new approaches to draw down carbon dioxide into the soil through plants or ways to help farmers mitigate climate change so they can continue to harvest crops. Also genome editing has seen a shift – most people seem to be really excited about it. Plus, all the scary stories we heard about biotechnology never came to pass; in fact the biotechnology that people were so afraid of 35 years ago has now led to this huge reduction in spraying of chemical insecticides, and that message is slowly getting out.


On a personal note, where did your love for plant biology and this field come from? There must be an origin story. 

I think to me it’s always been clear that the food situation is urgent, ever since I was a child. My father was a refugee, Jewish, born in Berlin, and had to flee the Nazis. And my mother grew up in the depression. So we always heard about people who didn’t have enough to eat. I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about poverty, about access to food, about access to seed, about colonial influences that might affect the choices that farmers and poor countries are able to have. So I grew up with that interest in food but also in the natural world. I spent a lot of time in the mountains and I just fell in love with plants. For me it all came together because my parents, especially my father, would say – you have a lot of privilege. So I felt like I needed to do something for the world. You only have one life.

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