Pamela Ronald is one of the world’s leading scientists on plant genetics, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, and the co-author (with her husband, Raoul Adamchuk) of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. In this episode, she and Robert talk about the evolution of pathogens, why nearly everything we eat has been genetically modified, her work on developing flood-resistant strains of rice, CRISPR, and why geneticist Barbara McClintock, the winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is one of her personal heroes.
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, welcome to the power hungry podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And today it’s going to be a lot about innovation and some politics. And I’m proud to introduce my guest, Pamela Ronald, she is a professor at in the genome center, and in the department of plant pathology at the University of California Davis. Dr. Ronald, welcome to the power hungry podcast. Hello, thank you very much for having me. Now, I didn’t warn you. We just chatted a few minutes before we started the recording here that I have guests introduce themselves. So now I’m putting you on the spot. So you have 3045 seconds. You’re in a room? You don’t know anyone there. Go ahead. Tell us who you are.
Pamela Donald 0:45
I’m a rice geneticist at the University of California Davis. And I study how plants resist infectious disease. And also, what are the mechanisms for tolerance to environmental stress, such as flooding? And I’m co author of a book with my husband, who’s an organic farmer, called tomorrow’s table. Organic farming genetics in the future.
Robert Bryce 1:09
Hold it up. You’ve got a copy there. Okay, there we go. Tomorrow’s table if you’ve got organic farming genetics, and the what I’m sorry, what was the last year of food future of food? And that came out? 2008. Is that right?
Pamela Donald 1:21
The first edition and then the the new edition is 2018. So a couple years ago?
Robert Bryce 1:28
Oh, okay, great. And well, then the first obvious question is, how is it to write a book with your husband? It’s,
Pamela Donald 1:34
oh, well, you have to be very polite. You have to say, Well, I really like that except maybe you consider perhaps possibly deer changing that sentence? unless you really want to?
Robert Bryce 1:53
Well, good. Well, I want to get I want to talk about rice. I want to talk about your work in in genetics. And it’s a subject about which I you know, I’m just learning the barest minimum. But you don’t like the term genetic genetically modified organism, why not? And what’s your preferred term?
Pamela Donald 2:10
Well, the term GMO is so broad. Everything we eat is genetically modified in some manner, except maybe on the Pacific Coast, we have wild caught salmon, or perhaps you’re out hunting mushrooms in the forest, but almost everything has been modified genetically by human beings. And so for that reason, that FDA in the United States does not use the term because it’s it’s not very accurate. And really, the term means different things to different people. So some people use the term and they’re maybe a little alarmed by it, because GMO rhymes with UFO, or so I just prefer to talk about be more specific. So I talked about genetically improved crops, which can include many different approaches, or genetically engineered crops, which specifically means taking a gene from another species and putting it into plants. So I’ll probably use those terms during this interview,
Robert Bryce 3:13
show genetically improved crops, and then what was the other one? I’m sorry? genetically engineered crops, Okay, there you go,
Pamela Donald 3:20
often means that you’re able to take a gene, for example, from a bacteria and then put it into a plant. And we could talk about later why or why not? You might might want to consider doing that.
Robert Bryce 3:32
And if I’m right, or I remember my briefings on this, the sub one gene was genetically engineered, is that right?
Pamela Donald 3:41
The sub one gene is a special case. Well, it’s genetically improved, but it’s not genetically engineered. It was not regulated. So we’ll talk about sub one, but that was developed through a modern genetic technique called marker assisted breeding, and it’s putting a rice gene in a rice plant, so it’s not regulated.
Robert Bryce 4:00
Gotcha. Well, so I just want to back up because I want to give you your full Do I know you introduce yourself and you’re wonderfully brief. You’re also I looked you up your Fulbright, you want a Fulbright Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, your breakthrough Fellow at breakthrough Institute, your TED talk from 2015 has been viewed more than one by 1.8 million people. 2019 year elected the National Academy of Sciences 2020 year named a world agriculture Prize Laureate by the global confederation of higher education associations for agricultural and Life Sciences. You were the first woman work recognized with this reward. So you’ve been busy.
Pamela Donald 4:40
I’ve had a really nice career, a lot of support from UC Davis and of course wonderful colleagues.
Robert Bryce 4:47
Well, that’s that’s a very nice way to deflect the the the awards but let me let me back up. I know we’re bouncing around here just the beginning, but I wanted the One of the things that surround you now you’re in Davis, which is west of Sacramento, the cold or fire is just east of Sacramento. Is that right? I mean, you’re, you’re seeing the effects of this right now.
Pamela Donald 5:10
Yeah, it’s heartbreaking. We’ve had very severe fire seasons for the last few years. Last year, there were fires very near where I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. And this year, the fires are in your South Lake Tahoe, which is another place dear to our heart. So it’s it’s very challenging, a lot of people have been evacuated, the fire is still 0% contained. Very, very difficult situation we’re in. We’re in Davis, which is in the Central Valley of California. Very, very low fire risk here. So we’re not personally threatened.
Robert Bryce 5:47
Gotcha. You mentioned in areas that you’re a California girl, that’s where you grew up, raised. You went to school, I guess, should pretty much your whole your all your academic career was in California as well.
Pamela Donald 5:59
No, I went to college in Portland, Oregon. And I spent some time in Europe and and if it can, New York,
Robert Bryce 6:07
oh, right at Cornell. So let’s talk about before we started recording, and we’re going to get to agriculture. But we you talked about the evolution of pathogens, and you’re a plant pathologist. And And specifically, I think this is interesting now and you catch it in the terms of the Delta variant with COVID. So talk about that, if you don’t mind about the evolution of pathogens, because is the way I heard you explained, I’m gonna read it back to you that this is something you have to do continuing continuously in agriculture and in public health, is that this monitoring of pathogens because they’re always evolving to hurt us again, in some other way? Or this? Is that a fair way to characterize it? How would you characterize it?
Pamela Donald 6:48
Yeah, that’s a great way to to explain it. It’s something that really captured my imagination many years ago, when I was an undergraduate the fact that most plants are resistant to most micro organisms, but some plants are able to form a symbiotic relationship or a beneficial relationship. And then some plants are completely susceptible to very serious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi, for example. So with the Delta variant, I think the public is is becoming very cognizant of this idea that, that pathogens evolve and they evolve often become more virulent. And certainly, that’s a serious situation for human health. But it’s also a very serious situation agricultural systems. So pathogens are able to evolve, you might have a crop that is, is growing very well. And then in a year or two, perhaps it succumbs to an infectious disease. And so this is obviously important to farmers, because if the the crop doesn’t have genetic resistance, then they have to spray, often chemicals, sometimes not so healthy chemicals. So what scientists are trying to do is to understand that molecular interaction, why are some plants resistant? What is going on with the pathogen? And how can we take that knowledge and use genetics to genetically improve crops so that they have resistance to current strains and possibly emerging strains?
Robert Bryce 8:26
And so this is something to and obviously, now, that’s what we’re dealing with the Delta via variant and looking at it another round of vaccinations inoculations to stave this one off. But let’s move it now and move to your field and in plant pathology, what I thought in advance of our discussion, and you know, the big questions you’ve been, I’ve seen you interviewed many times about what you do, and so on. But wait, let me ask you a broad question about what are the biggest challenges in agriculture today? I mean, what I’ve seen, I was just noticing that we continue to see record harvests, in fact, latest crop, latest news about record harvest in several East Coast states and in in wheat and corn, etc, that despite a lot of predictions about inability going back to Malthus to feed ourselves that we’re actually doing pretty good on that on that count. So when you look at the future, and you look at these issues all the time, what are the what are the things that would worry you about the future of agriculture?
Pamela Donald 9:25
Well, the there always be some places and some crops in the world with record harvests. Because the world is large, the crops are different, but there will also be some crops and some parts of the world that are just lost. And we see that a lot, especially in the developing world where we don’t have access to chemicals to control pests, where we’re not able to control water, as well as we can in some in some places. And so an example is the fall army worm. It’s a pest that was discovered several years ago. Go. And I think Ethiopia. And within just a few years, that pest has moved across the entire African continent. And farmers are really suffering, they’re seeing dramatic damage to their corn crop. And corn is a staple food for many people in Africa. And the
Robert Bryce 10:21
old I’m sorry, it’s called the fault army worm all army worm fall army worm. Yeah, so
Pamela Donald 10:25
it’s a it’s a past test. And so that’s just an example of where you can see this, this rapid spread of a very serious insect, or disease. And so then farmers and scientists are scrambling to develop crops that will withstand that withstand that pest. And with as the climate changes, these types of invasions are expected to occur more often and, and quite unpredictable, because we haven’t experienced this warming climate before. So that’s one example. Of course, the other example people are even more familiar with is heat, and drought and flooding. And so again, like just to give you an example, I work on rice. And in California, all the rice paddies are very well controlled in terms of the amount of water that is added, because it’s the the fields are laser planed. And you can start turn on the tap on one end and drain it on the other end, you can exactly the level of water. But that is not the case in most of South and Southeast Asia, where these are rain fed systems. And there have been terrible floods over the last three, four years. And they’re predicted to occur with increasing frequency and intensity as the climate changes.
Robert Bryce 11:56
Well, so let’s talk about then since you mentioned rice and flooding. When I you know, look at your work and in in agriculture, and the work that you did with David mcil. And I guess have one other colleague whose name escapes me cannon, was that his name? Yeah. khanong shoe, can I chew that the three of you, I guess, work together and the discovery of the sub one gene, tell me about the sub one gene and why it matters.
Pamela Donald 12:21
Yes, so this is quite a large collaboration with even more people. And it started already, you know, 50 years ago, probably where scientists at the International rice Research Institute, were screening, so they have a very fantastic seed collection. And the seed collection is wild species of rice, and sort of locally adapted varieties of rice called land races, huge diversity, and that genetic diversity is very important because genes confer important traits. One of the important traits is tolerance to flooding. And the reason this has been of interest is because every year in South and Southeast Asia, 4 million tons of rice is lost to flooding, which is enough to feed 30 million people. So this has been a very serious challenge for a long time. And just to remind viewers, that rice grows well in standing water, but if the plant is completely submerged, most rice varieties will die. So researchers at the International rice Research Institute identified a variety of rice that was called flood resistant rice that had a really amazing property, it could withstand two weeks of flooding, and then it would start to grow again as the flood subsided. So there was a lot of interest. breeders had used conventional breeding techniques to try to bring this trade in from this ancient variety into modern varieties that are grown by farmers. But the resulting varieties were rejected by the farmers because the many of the other traits changed. So for example, they might not have yield as well, maybe they didn’t taste as well. Maybe they weren’t adapted as well to the local environments. So my colleague, Dave mcil, cannot chew and I decided to try to isolate the gene. And we were able to do that. We use the genetic approach. And then we were able to engineer rice in the laboratory to show that that addition of a single gene can confer dramatic submergence tolerance. So whereas the control plants died, after two weeks of flooding, our plants survived.
Robert Bryce 14:52
And then well, not only if I can if I can, not only did they thrive, but I watched your TED talk and you showed the time lapse video. Have the submerged rice versus the sub one Jean rice. And I watched it and I wonder I the thought that came to my head. Did you ever look at that and think this is almost magic? I mean, because to me, that’s how it came off. Right? That just it’s almost magic, what you’ve done. Do you ever have you ever looked back and and think, man, this is really incredible, because to me is a complete novice to what your field of study is. I thought, Wow, that is impressive.
Pamela Donald 15:29
Well, yeah, thanks for saying that. I mean, I love that video was developed at the International rice Research Institute. And it really shows the power of genetics or the magic of genetics, if you want to put it that way.
Robert Bryce 15:42
It looks like look like magic to me. I mean, because you can see it in, in this very short video over it was a time lapse of several weeks, right, just that it was. But the disparity in the growth rate was just remarkable.
Pamela Donald 15:56
It’s remarkable. And I think it really explains to people why scientists are putting so much time into genetic research, because it’s really, for many different challenges faced by farmers, a genetic approach is the most effective and environmentally sustainable approach to solving a particular challenge. And and I think that that type of video really drives it home to to an audience. Whereas if you’re just talking about genes and acronyms, such as sub one, it’s it’s not as meaningful,
Robert Bryce 16:31
right? And you get into acronyms, and you get into yields. And oh, well, it’s 3x 4x. But I mean, some of the things that I’ve seen just lately and I talked with our mutual friend, Matt Winkler about this and Jon Entine, and some other people, I mean, there was a there was a headline just in the genetic literacy project, they had an article about a transgenic maize variety in Africa that showed a three times output or the productivity. I want to read this just this first snippet it says data from the third confined, confined field trial of the Tila maze project is being carried out. The Institute for agricultural research summer really shown that the variety produces nine tonnes per hectare as against three tonnes by the best producing maize variety in Nigeria. That variety is now being tried in Nigeria is resistant to stem bores, stem bores and fall army worm and is also drought tolerant. I mean, it sounds almost too good to be true. It mean, just that you can, you can get this incredible increase in yield and increase in resistance to that you’ve just mentioned the fall armyworm, which I didn’t notice that one, one pest there. But I mean, it’s just is that what we can expect Now, is this continuing improvement and these kinds of yield improvements? Is this going to be common? Or is it already common.
Pamela Donald 17:46
So just to put that in perspective, it was really about 100 years ago that scientists first were able to demonstrate that we can make specific genetic crosses between different varieties of plants, and in this case, you know, corn or barley, and you could cross a resistant variety with the susceptible variety, and then the progeny would be resistant, right. So that really began this genetic improvement program, at least for disease resistance. And certainly, long before that. Mendel showed that you can make dramatic changes in in phenotypes or traits by making genetic crosses. So genetic improvement has been a staple for agriculture for for many, many years. And what we’re moving into now are additional tools. So marker assisted breeding, which was used to develop the the sub one variety, the submergence tolerant variety that you saw in the video, that started to be developed maybe 10 or 15 years ago, it’s a very powerful approach to bring just the key gene into the variety of interests without bringing in a lot of traits that the farmer doesn’t want to see. Right. And then we have genetic engineering, which I briefly described, which is you can take a gene from any species put it into a plant, for example, the BT gene, which is used by it’s a trait, a product used by organic farmers to spread the crops to limit insects spread. So that’s a very powerful approach to take the gene for that and put it into plants, which reduces application of chemicals. And then we have genome editing, which is another new tool. So all these kinds of tools are considered a part of genetic improvement. And genetic improvement also, is includes hybridization, which is also been used for, you know, over 100 years. So these are all very important tools and we can in some cases, Is expect huge yield increases, I would say,
Robert Bryce 20:04
and why now? I think I could answer this myself. But why did those yield increases mattered put it in? Tell me? What is that? Why does that good?
Pamela Donald 20:14
Well, and in in some places in the world, it determines whether your children can eat or not. So for example, rice in many parts of the world is a subsistence crop, which means that farmers only grow enough to feed themselves and their family. And so if they lose their their rice crop, because of a flood, they don’t have any grain. So it’s very different in the United States, we’re in a market driven system. So a lot of food around, we buy, we essentially are going to buy our food. And if obviously, we can’t get a locally which we cannot in many places in our, in our country, we can buy it, and we could buy it on the market, and there’s global trade. So but if you’re a subsistence farmer, you’re not part of that trade off, and you don’t have much money to buy anything. And so that’s why
Robert Bryce 21:08
so we can know the difference between starving and living. I mean, to put it in stark terms, right?
Pamela Donald 21:15
Yes. So that’s why it matters for many places in the world. But even for us, it matters a lot. Because if you have a higher yielding crop, the farmer is using less fertilizer, less pesticides, less water, which is huge. And there’s less greenhouse gas emissions, because the tractors not going back and forth over the field so much. So this idea of high yield or productive productivity is very important for that the environmental considerations.
Robert Bryce 21:48
And then the, the obvious one, I guess, I’d add is just the smaller land footprint. And Jesse also Bell, of course, has talked about this other other analysts, I think indigo, Connie had done some calculations that if if agricultural productivity had been stuck in where it wasn’t, say 1950 or 1960, we would need continent sized farms to feed the world. And instead, as I recall, our agricultural footprint has been pretty flat for decades in the United States. Is that is that right?
Pamela Donald 22:17
Yeah, that’s right. And I think that’s a really good way to talk about it is is just the agricultural footprint. And we don’t actually globally have that much arable land to farm that’s left to farm. So we have to feed more people with about the same amount of land and less freshwater.
Robert Bryce 22:36
There’s only and is it fair to say that the only way we’re going to do that, and I’m asking a plant geneticist, but is through genetics, is that the really, it seems like it’s the most powerful tool that we have in the toolbox. Is that Is that a fair assessment?
Pamela Donald 22:51
Well, genetics has always been a powerful tool, and it will absolutely continue to be a powerful tool, one of the most powerful tools. But of course, there’s other aspects of farming outside of the seed. So here in California, we’ve moved to drip irrigation is a, in fact, vention in Israel, so we’re able to conserve water. more effectively, farmers are able to rotate their crops, so that can reduce at least somewhat the amount of nitrogen fertilizers that need to be applied to the land. So there are quite a number of farming practices that are also important, but it’s that combination of farming practices, and genetically improved seeds that really gives that the higher yield with reduced chemicals with a smaller environmental footprint. Well, so
Robert Bryce 23:41
let’s follow up on that because one of the acronyms in your business is CRISPR. And I looked it up clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. So I’m, you know, I’m a writer palindromes, I think of Bob and radar. And you know, well, the obvious ones, right. But what in looking that up, and there was a good summary summary of it on the Alliance for science, that there was a possibility that CRISPR This, this, it, which is a method of editing genes, if I got this, right, yeah. That you could potentially use CRISPR to help fix nitrogen in the soil, which could alleviate the need or reduce the need for synthetic nitrogen made with the haber Bosch process and natural gas. I mean, that seems to me almost too good to be true. Is there? Is there real potential there on the using CRISPR? Because this is a fair, is this a fairly new technology? Is that right?
Pamela Donald 24:38
Yeah, I mean, that’s absolutely a potential. So CRISPR is is a tool, another tool in genetics that scientists are applying to many different problems and challenges. And, of course, one of the great challenges is that we’re applying so much fertilizer, which has some very difficult environmental effects. So scientists are using CRISPR to try to edit The plant genome and one of the ideas is well, can we edit receptors that uptake, nitrates and make them more efficient? So that is certainly one of the approaches is, as far as I know, there’s nothing that’s been commercialized yet. There’s several labs that are working on that and there is certainly a lot of potential there.
Robert Bryce 25:23
And is CRISPR is my impression is that that in among all the different tools in genetic management, genetic engineering, crop engineering, that this is a fairly new is that is that is that is am I wrong there? I’m betraying my ignorance here. But my ignorance on this is why deep Tell me about the history of CRISPR?
Pamela Donald 25:41
Sure, well, just to put in perspective, again, genetic engineering has been used in the field for about 30 years. So it’s sort of an older technique, it’s used in many industries, taking the gene from one species put it into another species. CRISPR was discovered by many teams of scientists, different aspects of it, but a very seminal paper was in 2012, which is not that long ago. And that was Emanuel sharpened TA and Jennifer Doudna, who were able to show that they could engineer this CRISPR system to to target specific DNA sequences. And so that paper was was very important. So they were awarded the Nobel Prize last year for that work. And that’s been that was super important. Since that time CRISPR, this idea of precisely editing, a genome has been applied using virtually any species that has been tried. Try it on. And so it’s, it’s very powerful. And then for somebody that’s a film editor, or journalists, easiest way to think about it is you have your Word document, you have a bunch of letters, and you can just go in and you can delete certain letters, you can insert letters. And so you can really just type in the changes that you want to make.
Robert Bryce 27:07
Well, so I mentioned nitrogen fixation, because I’m familiar with the haber Bosch process, the artificial immune before. farmers had to find guano, right? bat guano or bird guano, that that was the key fertilizer and there was a big global trade in in guano. But haber Bosch haber Bosch figured out how to manufacture synthetic ammonia from from natural gas, and it fundamentally changed agriculture. Is there is there in using CRISPR. Is there one, is there a holy grail in that regard? Besides nitrogen fixation, that would be an objective that genetic, you know, genetic engineering would be aiming for? Or is it just all going to be depending on the different crop that you’re talking about?
Pamela Donald 27:49
it so it depends on different crops. So So nitrogen fixation is a little bit different than nitrogen uptake. Both are equally important, both have the same effect of reducing nitrogen fertilizers. nitrogen fixation is a very interesting and important process. And it’s a relationship between a plant and a microbe that’s able to take nitrogen from the air and fix it in a manner that the plant can can take up. And those plants are sort of what we consider broadleaf plants like soybeans, for example, fixed nitrogen, right?
Robert Bryce 28:24
legumes, right? Yeah,
Pamela Donald 28:26
exactly. But we have many important staple food crops such as wheat, rice, corn that do not fix nitrogen. So that is been really a big effort and interest since I was a young graduate student, to see if we can get these plants, our cereal crops to fix nitrogen. And there’s still a very, you know, very talented teams working on this. It’s still I think, I’m going to say a moonshot because you not only have to modify one gene, but you need to modify the whole physiology to allow plants to form that symbiotic association with with the bacteria. So it’s, it’s very important. But I think there’s sort of lower hanging fruit that people are using CRISPR for and we already have examples where CRISPR has been used to engineer plants for resistance to pathogens, diseases, and we have some interesting types of approaches. Better there are coming up. So traditionally, with with crop improvement, we take a crop that has been domesticated for maybe 10,000 years. So rice has been domesticated meaning humans have intervened. Sure, that crop for 10,000 years to make better grain better.
Robert Bryce 29:51
We’re really talking about cereals, wheat, wheat, corn and rice is that Yeah, yeah. Okay.
Pamela Donald 29:56
That’s it virtually all the crops we have been domesticated. Sure. And so that’s very nice for the farmer and the consumer, because they have large grain and easy to harvest and they taste well. But during that long domestication, we’ve lost some genes for resistance or environmental stress tolerance. And so the the breeding approaches to try to bring those genes back in. So like the sub one, we went into a gene bank, we found interesting gene, and we try to bring it back in to the modern varieties. But there’s another approach, which is to take plants that have never been domesticated. So they might be very resilient to environmental stress. But they’re not producing a very good good grain, or they don’t taste very well. So scientists are now trying to use CRISPR, to just go into that wild species or a crop that’s really never been cultivated. And try to use CRISPR. To change for example, the fruit size, the flavor, the color, the grain yield. And so it’s, it’s a different approach to developing crops. And that’s also quite exciting.
Robert Bryce 31:08
So these are two different IC. So CRISPR could also be used in terms of spoilage, right? I mean, I think you mentioned this in one of you that you could make your tomatoes or your corn or something that would be fresher longer is that would that be something you’d use CRISPR for would be a different technique,
Pamela Donald 31:24
you could probably use CRISPR for that, you know, sort of a famous example for non spoilage was the flavor saber tomato that was developed in Davis, California. And it never really took off. Uh huh. It was the flavor apparently wasn’t very good to start with. But, you know, that
Robert Bryce 31:48
lousy tasting tomato that’s lasted longer on the shelf. Oh, great. This is this is
Pamela Donald 31:57
kind of abandoned, but certainly, you know, there is a reason for slowing down ripening. So if you think about mangoes, it’s nice to be able to ship them far, if you’re in some places in the world, there’s mangoes everywhere, and they’re, they’re ripening too fast. So if you can slow down the ripening, it’ll maybe it provides some sort of economic stability for a poor mango farmer if they can, you know, ship it to a further place. But but that’s just sort of genetics in general. So I think you could do that with genetic engineering or breeding or CRISPR. So that that that type of ripening alterations can be addressed by by different genetic techniques, as well as handling techniques, right? Because if you know your your avocados and bananas together, they ripen faster. So if you don’t want them to ripen, you keep you keep them separate. So there is
Robert Bryce 32:52
it true putting avocados and bananas together. they ripen faster. Oh, yeah, I better try. Okay, well do your own experiment. My bananas generally go bad before I’m able to eat them. So I don’t know the
Pamela Donald 33:07
they produce the gas called ethylene, which affects the fruit next to them. Ah,
Robert Bryce 33:14
well, ethylene comes out of petroleum. I didn’t know they produce ethylene. Is that right? Wow, that’s pretty settling. Okay, very potent hormone. Okay. Well, so what is it? I asked you about this before and you? Actually one other question you in your TED Talk. You talked about the the the plant to synthase, which is the precursor of corn. And that that that corn maybe is is corn, it will pair up? Just ask the question. Is that the best example of overall, now centuries of humans monkeying with messing with the gin modifying grain is that the quintessential example of cereal grain that humans have been perfecting over time because you showed the to Cindy, which use as you said wasn’t didn’t taste very good. That was hard to shock. It was hard to produce that now we have this incredible corn is that is that the best example of how humans have made cereal grains better over time, do you think?
Pamela Donald 34:17
Well, it’s a great example. It’s a very visual example. It’s really true for for everything we eat, that there has been this dramatic change. And if we look at the ancestor, the progenitor 10,000 years ago, you know, modern day people wouldn’t really want to eat it. But what our ancestors did is they started to plant and harvest and then they started carrying out what we consider primitive domestication, just picking the progeny and replanting the seed for those that have useful traits. And so the nice thing about TSM today is you have this very low producing type of Grain that you have to break open with a hammer and sew it. And now we have about 100 fold higher productivity from a single plant than we did 10,000 years ago.
Robert Bryce 35:12
Well, I’m glad you I’m glad you mentioned that, because that was one of the points you made in your TED Talk, which 100 fold. I mean, that’s just a staggering increase. But it didn’t. It didn’t happen overnight. We I mean, this is a centuries long process of increasing yield and so on. Let me ask you, this is another sophomore at question, which maybe I’ll add for you today. But you got some you figured out the sub one gene, and you produce this one patch of rice that did incredibly well, which I’m assuming, exceeded maybe exceeded your own expectations? How do you propagate the seed? Because now how many farmers are using this sub one? sub one rice? How many are using announced several millions, right?
Pamela Donald 35:53
Yeah, a couple years ago is 6 million. I’m not sure how many last year, but maybe up to 10 million now.
Robert Bryce 35:59
Wow. So how do you propagate the seed, you just have one field and you just you harvest all that seed and then plant another one and harvest the seed from that? I’m, again, I’m you know, it’s a simple question. But I’m a simple guy. How does that work?
Pamela Donald 36:12
Yeah, no, that’s a good question. And that is pretty much the answer. And this took, again, international collaboration and a lot of infrastructure. So we have international centers in Bangladesh and India, in the Philippines, I should say, the Philippines is the International Center. And then they work with the national programs, and Bangladesh and India, which are national breeding programs. And they work very closely together. And scientists at the International rice Research Institute, have developed a network of collaboration over many years. And so when the, the team at the International rice Research Institute develop these varieties through marker assisted breeding, they then brought those seeds to their collaborators in India and Bangladesh. And those scientists in those breeding stations would grow the seed, and then they would test the seed in those environments to be sure that they see you’re warming as needed in those locally adapted environments. And then once the Bangladeshi scientists said, yes, this, you know, this is good, our farmers are going to want that, then they need to bulk up the seed. And it’s exactly like you say they, they plant the plant, and then they harvest the seed. So, as you can imagine, if you have 6 million farmers that need the seed, how does that happen? Well, it happens in several ways. One is that it’s poked up in those breeding stations and then provided to local farmers, through just their their normal normal costs, which is usually very, very minimal. And the Gates Foundation actually helped support that, what we consider bulking up the seed process, which was, you know, really important, I think, to have that financial help and to pay the salary. That’s what it’s and that’s what it’s called
Robert Bryce 38:09
bulking up the seed. Is that the word? Yeah. And so then from and just to interrupt is so from the time when you did the test, to the time that you get to 6 million, how many years are in that in that interval, then?
Pamela Donald 38:24
So we I said the the paper describing isolation of the gene was already several years ago, 2006, I think, but prior to isolation of the gene, my colleague, Dave mcil, who had moved back to the Philippines, began his marker assisted breeding process. So the isolation and Gene cloning in my lab was being carried out in parallel with the breeding efforts in his in his lab. And so by the time we had published the gene sequence, and just not too much technicalities, but after you have the sequence, you can develop markers that that enhance the breeding process, make it go very much quicker.
Robert Bryce 39:09
Sure, you can produce the seed more quickly.
Pamela Donald 39:12
Yeah, you can produce first you can produce a variety, because you don’t only want one variety, you want to put this gene into different varieties, oh, I think what farmers want for one variety, Indian farmers might want another variety. So that process of bringing in the gene called marker assisted breeding really relies on these markers, these genetic markers. But once you have that variety, then comes this bulking up process. So you only need really one seed and then each plant produces 500 seed 1000 seeds, and so then you can keep self pollinating so at that point, it’s all self pollination. So that can occur in these breeding stations and then they give the bags of seed to the farmers and then the farmers can go grow the crop, they can eat some of the seed, and then they can sell pollinate some other seed, and then they have their own seed for the next year, or they can give it to neighbors. Or they can sell it to their neighbors, which when we visited down there, we found out was also very common.
Robert Bryce 40:15
Right? So you’re talking about that bulking up process from the lab in 2006, or whatever to get to five or 6 million farmers, you’re talking 567 years, 10 years, something like that, to make that to scale it up? Because that’s always the challenge in any new technology is from the lab to the scale, right? It’s the same in the energy business. But is that is that fair is that about? I mean, took that from from your, from your first paper to getting it out to millions, that’s, that’s a years long process.
Pamela Donald 40:45
Yeah, and the scaling up was really made possible because of many 50 years of collaboration between these institutions. So they already had the infrastructure in place. They had, they knew what varieties they wanted to put the gene into. They knew how to do that. And so we really can’t, I just really want to emphasize that that type of breeding centers are just critical to this project. So my lab alone, well, we couldn’t have done this project. So first of all, we didn’t have the germ plasm, I didn’t have my collaborators. And so we did sort of that, the scent, that part in the middle, isolating the gene characterizing the gene, then I have a collaborator in the riverside that figured out the physiology of how it functions. But really, I have to emphasize that the credit for getting in the hands of farmers good is to the international rice Research Institute, their scientists and their team and their collaborators in Bangladesh. And
Robert Bryce 41:48
what you’re describing to me, as I hear you say that is that a trust network that’s been developed over years, that was essential to make this all happen, right, that you knew you had some counterpart that you knew they were capable, you knew they were trustworthy, and that this was going to make the whole that it was this collaborative effort all toward us sent a similar end, but it wasn’t about necessarily about profit, it was about this trust network of making light. And now I’m making the world better is that I don’t mean to, you know, sound. I don’t even know how that sounds. But Is that a fair assessment?
Pamela Donald 42:22
Yeah, absolutely. So rice, develop developing rice seed for subsistence farmers is not a for profit endeavor. So the international rice Research Institute is funded at one point entirely by nonprofit foundations, the Rockefeller Foundation, for example, the Ford Foundation, I think, was one of the early contributors. And the goal of the International rice Research Institute is to develop rice varieties for resource for poor farmers. They don’t it’s very different than what we see in the United States where we have seed companies that are selling seeds to farmers that can afford it to grow food that is sold to consumers. So it’s a for profit system, but it’s very different in many places in the less developed world. And that’s one reason I was interested in working on rice, because it’s a staple food crop for more than half the world’s people, and a huge need to continue to develop varieties that will enhance food security and environmental sustainability.
Robert Bryce 43:27
So let’s talk about well, what’s golden rice? And why is it important?
Pamela Donald 43:33
So go. So just to back up a little bit. Another huge challenge. So we’ve talked about some of the challenges. We’ve talked about pests and disease, we’ve talked about environmental stress, but another challenge is, is nutrition. So there’s some places in the world where children primarily children and young mothers have vitamin A deficiency. It’s a very severe deficiency, they often are eating rice three times a day, they don’t have money to buy vegetables, they don’t have a farm to grow the vegetables so they’re they’re buying food that has calories. But the problem is that they’re not getting basic nutrients. So nutrient deficiencies remain a huge problem in many, many parts of the world. And their vitamin A deficiency is estimated to affect about I think 500,000 children every year, and many of these children will go blind and and half the children will die. So this is just been a very serious problem that’s been recognized for a very long time. And of course, there are many approaches to attacking vitamin A deficiency. There’s things like supplements so tried to destroy the World Health Organization distributes chemical supplements to people around the world, but often it doesn’t reach these rural areas, there are farm programs to try to, at least for on farm people to try to do grow different types of leafy greens and carrots. But despite these efforts, there’s still been this terrible toll. So, this project goldeneyes project was started already 25 years ago, perhaps by supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. So again, this is in the nonprofit domain, because it’s not something you’re going to make money on. So developing, the goal is to develop rice that is bio fortified, in other words, that it produces components that the human can metabolize to produce their own vitamin A. And it’s been scientifically a very, very successful project. There has been a summarized varieties that have been developed, that have high levels of vitamin A, precursors to vitamin A, and are expected to save the lives of 1000s of children every year. So the in the Philippines and Philippines biosafety committee just approved commercialization of golden rice just last month, so it’s very exciting time. So hopefully, it’ll be in the hands of Philippine farmers very soon. But it’s been a very long time. So, you know, there were scientific challenges. Of course, the first version had low amounts of beta carotene in the seed, which is a precursor for vitamin name. So it was developed to have higher levels, which is been confirmed to be high enough to really make a huge difference and saving lives. You know, there were there were problems in, you know, developing the varieties. But a huge, one of the biggest challenges was, there’s a lot of people in the world that are against biotechnology, and a lot of protests and fear, I have to say fear mongering. And so that’s really slowed it down. I mean, I think everybody is aware of this kind of thing today. So we have vaccines, which are clearly saving the lives of people, but we still have many people around the world that hear that vaccines are harmful. And they they see these conspiracy theories. And so we haven’t had as much uptake as we really need to, to keep our world safe. And
Robert Bryce 47:36
as you say that just what pops into my head and I hear you say that, because we talked about the evolution of pathogens, and we’ve talked about the genetically engineered organisms, and I see these opposition to vaccines, nuclear, nuclear energy, you know, genetically engineered crops, they’re all seemed to me to be a piece in some kind of distrust of science, distrust of technology, distrust of, of I mean, frankly, people like you or I mean, you know, the the man right, but you know, big business that there’s that based in these kind of crazy conspiracy theories, or this idea of we need to go back to nature, or somehow we’ve violated our covenant with with Mother Earth or something. It does that make sense to you? I mean, is it I’m just now thinking out loud about these, but I see it in those three fields and energy, in public health in food. There’s just kind of a similar kind of foolishness, as you say, fearmongering is it? Am I seeing this? Or do you see it the same way? Or if so differently? How do you see it?
Pamela Donald 48:39
Well, absolutely. I think this is another huge challenge of our time combating disinformation and there’s you know, most of the people that are ill affected by these conspiracy theories are well meaning but they’re getting there, you know, they go on, I don’t know Facebook’s or they people come in to their house and scare them. And so there’s very innocent vulnerable people that are that are affected. But there are a couple organizations that will provide disinformation, on all these things at once. And you you kind of
Robert Bryce 49:15
say can I say the word Greenpeace here? I don’t know if you’re involved in vaccines. But I know when it comes to nuclear and GMOs, they’re there in the among the guilty.
Pamela Donald 49:24
I try not to name names, but there are some organizations that will will say, vaccines and GMOs. They never really specify what they mean by GMOs, but just something scary vaccines and GMOs will, you know, cause infertility and they’re pushed by big companies and you know, they’re going to give you cancer, they’re going to give you autism, it’s really the same sort of talking points, unrelated to any scientific basis that really scares people. Many of these groups are also selling something instead, and you’ll you’ll you can go on the website and there’s supplement companies Don’t take the vaccine, eat this that I’m going to sell you and, and it’s it’s also not even necessarily directly selling something but all the clicks. So it’s a very emotional
Robert Bryce 50:10
garlic around your neck or something. Right yeah. So,
Pamela Donald 50:14
I mean this is, I would say always been the case for human beings this susceptibility to conspiracy theories and it will remain a challenge our whole life about how to bring human beings back to the essential issues of public health, importance and you know, environmental resilience and thinking about what farmers need to do to survive so we’re gonna be busy for a long time combating misinformation.
Robert Bryce 50:49
Sure. Well, and this has been a theme I’ve talked about on the podcast a lot of time about, you know, the the fourth many guests about the politicization politicization of science, politicization of technology, how its applied in terms of policy and so on. But let me step back for just a minute because we’re coming on close to an hour. And again, my guest is Pamela Ronald, she is a plant pathologist, and a professor at the University at the University of California in the genome Center and the Department of plant pathology and the co author of tomorrow’s table with her husband, row, Adam check who I briefly met in California a few weeks ago. So when talking about the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, of course, is held out, as you know, one of the heroes of that effort, but in looking at some of the things you said, You’re one of your heroes, I think is Barbara McClintock, who was profiled in the book called a feeling for the organism. I wasn’t familiar with her. Tell me about Barbara McClintock and why I’m making a jump here, but I’m assuming you mentioned this book in an interview that I saw, and that it quite affected you Who is she and why was she important to you?
Pamela Donald 51:59
Barbara McClintock is one of the most famous plant geneticists. And I think she also, of course, is a prize winner and Nobel Prize Laureate. And I think her work resonated with me quite a bit because showing my age I when I started my career, there were still many more men than women. And I was able to meet her. And her work was dismissed for many years. So she made a fundamental discovery that’s relevant to all organisms, that there are pieces of DNA that hopped around in the genome. And until her discovery, it was thought that DNA is static, you can’t have pieces moving around. And so she kept working and demonstrating this. And eventually her work was rediscovered, and bacteria. And then at that point, it was accepted. So this is just somebody that devoted her her work to something very important, very serious scientists, very admired by scientists around the world. And then, of course, there was a cheat, but she stuck with it.
Robert Bryce 53:10
It was in a period that it was much more of a man’s world then than even when you started going to school. I mean, is that a fair assessment?
Pamela Donald 53:18
Oh, yeah, she couldn’t even get a job as a professor, she had to sort of work in, you know, these sub subpar jobs. And eventually, happily, before she died, she was very well respected. But I think it also there was a book written by Evelyn Fox Keller called a feeling for the organism that I recommend that people read. And it was really exciting for me to read because I was a young scientist and, and it really captures the excitement and the beauty of science and the thrill of discovery. And so that book really resonated with me and also, I think, brought new attention to the importance of Barbara McClintock ‘s work.
Robert Bryce 54:00
So is it fair to say she’s one of your heroes? Yes. Who else would be in that in that locker room of of heroes in in your field or other fields?
Pamela Donald 54:12
Well, I have probably many heroes that Jennifer Doudna, who was awarded the Nobel Prize is a fantastic scientist. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with her working with her a little bit. I’m really admire, of course, her discovery, which has changed all of biology, and really making an effort to communicate science and to consider the risks and consequences of the work. And I have, you know, many scientists that have really inspired me, during my career have supported me, I think science. For any of you out there is a fantastic profession. And it’s a really super supportive network. We science is challenging, so we need each other There’s always somebody around to help you move forward.
Robert Bryce 55:05
So well that’s that’s a good rundown. So it one of the things I have to ask you is I know that and I mentioned I’m your husband row, Adam, Chuck, who’s your co author with on the book, tomorrow’s table. And I know he’s an organic farmer. Are you a gardener? So what do you grow in your at your house or your home? And what do you what do you grow? Or do you even have time for that?
Pamela Donald 55:27
Oh, I should have brought that I brought a basket to to the lab group today we are growing a lot. So in the basket that I brought today, our tomatoes and peppers and peaches, and figs, and apricots, and eggplants, and
Unknown Speaker 55:41
basil, every now
Pamela Donald 55:45
and August in the Central Valley of California is very abundant, and it sort of makes up for the smoke that we have because the food the plants are still producing which is very encouraging. Okay, so
Robert Bryce 55:59
this is a garden Well, okay, so is this the farmers is the garden I maybe I’m trying to split here, maybe I’m getting too specific here. But But row manages the organic farm at the university there and that but do you have a personal garden as well as I mean, how much did you spend in Miss often around in the dirt?
Pamela Donald 56:17
this all came from our backyard. A lot of credit goes to Raul. So he retired last year from his position at UC Davis. And so now we went through a period of four weeks where we had no vegetables. And it was it was very tough for us. But he’s now back on growing everything in the backyard.
Robert Bryce 56:37
Gotcha. Well, that sounds great. I love the idea of peaches right now. sounds really good. Well, a couple of last last questions, and then we’ll we’ll we’ll stop. But so what are you reading? Now? I like to you got a shelf shelves full of books behind you. What? What’s on your nightstand? Who do you Who do you read when you’re not working? Or is it all reading for work?
Pamela Donald 56:59
Well, I’ve been reading some, maybe a little unusual books, but I read a book called transit, which is about refugees in marsay. And that 1940 trying to get out of Europe. And now I’m reading another book about the same time. That also describes that period. And so I usually kind of go and deep to a certain area. So my father is a refugee. And so that’s that time. And that place is quite interesting to me. So those are the books I’m reading right now.
Robert Bryce 57:37
From where did he come? Your dad? He’s
Pamela Donald 57:40
from Berlin. And then he fled the Nazis to Paris and then southern France and then Cuba, and then eventually made it to California.
Robert Bryce 57:49
Oh, remarkable. And what year was that? Did he made it to California after the war ended? So he came in 46. Wow. Yeah. Yeah. I think I mentioned that. One of the other guests I had was Peter Osnos, his new book that just came out called a remarkably good Tang, me I’m gonna forget it right now. A remarkably good view, I think especially good view, I think. But he tells a story of his parents fleeing Warsaw. And they he arrived, or they arrived in California, I think in 1946. So similar, similar experience, but harrowing. I mean, just in the remarkable story that he tells about his parents, especially as father well, so as quick Go ahead, please really
Pamela Donald 58:35
resonated with me and influenced me because you know, I wanted to do something for the world. And I understood a young age that not everybody is able to have a house and a home and a stable nation, which is the way I considered the United States at least when I was growing up. So that I think really gave me kind of a motivation a vision to work in less developed countries
Unknown Speaker 59:02
Robert Bryce 59:04
It’s interesting because in talking with Peter Osnos, he mentioned that similar kind of drive just that there was something that had been inculcated in him for a very young age that he just he had it from the beginning right that he was going to make something and make it happen for himself that he would just had this motivation and it sounds well obviously given you know, your your career and what you’ve been able to do. It’s similar, somewhat similar in terms of the drive what gives you hope? Well,
Pamela Donald 59:36
I think the fact that I was able to pick figs this morning was reassuring the water is still there, and I’m so so it gives me hope, just sort of basic kinds of processes like that. There are some things that are remaining
Robert Bryce 59:51
the same you find you find hope in the garden.
Pamela Donald 59:54
Yeah, and I usually find hope up in this year in Nevada mountains, but that is a little unstable right now because of the fires. But of course, I find hope talking to people like you and my students. And there’s so much exciting science that is happening. And I really if I do get down, which does happen, reading the newspaper or looking at the smoke, I mean, I think in general, just the scientific process really gives me hope, because we do we do make progress, we help each other. And I think it’s, it’s healthy for us to have something to work on whether you’re a filmmaker or a journalist or a scientist, or just to be doing something that maybe you can’t see at the moment is going to vastly change particular challenge, but it is contributing to that end. And I think if we all continue to work, that is what we need to do. So I bet does give me hope, that process.
Robert Bryce 1:00:56
Well, that’s a good place to stop. So this has been great. I was pleased to, you know, bump into you again a few weeks ago, and that we finally made this happen. And you know, best of luck to you. I mean, it’s a remarkable work that you’re doing. So I you have a fan here. My guest, Pamela Ronald, she is a plant pathologist. She’s a professor in the genome center, and in the department of plant pathology. And at the University of California Davis. She’s the co author of tomorrow’s table. She has a very popular TED talk that you can Oh, it has been translated into 26 languages I saw. So you she’s easy to find on the interweb. So I encourage you to look her up. Pam, many thanks for your time today on the power hungry podcast. Thank you very much. It was a pleasure. And thanks to all of you for tuning in, tune into the next episode of the power hungry podcast. It’s going to be just as good as this one. Maybe I hope until then.