It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of rice for the human species.  More than a fifth of all the calories consumed by humans are in the form of rice. In terms of nutrition, it is the globe’s most important staple crop, which means that when something goes wrong with rice, the humanitarian implications can be staggering.

And, believe me, rice has some powerful enemies. Rice blight, when it strikes, can wipe out eighty percent of a crop in a grotesquely brief amount of time, and worldwide is responsible for the loss of one hundred thousand tons of grain a year, which could feed just over 750,000 people. That is a terrifying number, but in magnitude it is dwarfed by the destruction wrought each year by water. Flooding has traditionally claimed about 4 million tons of rice every year, which could have gone to feed thirty million people.

Food loss on that scale has attracted all manner of traditional solutions over the years, but the breakthrough that finally created rice seeds strong enough to stand up to blight and flood came when Pamela Ronald (b. 1961), a plant biologist and geneticist at UC Davis, combined the know-how of evolution with the rigor of molecular biology and genetics to solve at last a problem as old as written history.

Pamela Ronald

Ronald had always been intrigued by how plants interact with other organisms, how these seemingly passive living things hide within them a plethora of active responses to the hordes of micro and macroscopic beings attempting to do them in. In college, she studied how plants interface with fungi and the nature of plant-bacteria interactions when it struck her that the biggest problem she could devote her research to was the elucidation of how rice reacts to chemical and biological adversaries.

Coming to Davis as a faculty member in 1992, she turned to the question of how rice responds to the Xanthomonas oryzae bacterium that causes blight. In Mali a strain of rice had been found that resisted the blight, but the question was how? A gene, XA21, had been found that seemed to convey the resistance, and Ronald dedicated herself to discovering the chemical mechanism involved – what was the protein that gave rice cells immunity, and what was the bacterial chemical that causes the immune response?

In 1995 she found the rice receptor that, when triggered, kicked off the immune response. Then in 2009 she reported having found the chemical in bacteria that does the triggering. Unfortunately, a mistake in labeling that spiraled out of control forced her to publicly retract her findings in an act of scientific openness and honesty that won widespread praise. Undefeated by so many years of work thrown away at the hands of an errant label, she and her team dug deep and started over, triumphing at last with the discovery of RaXX, the bacterial trigger chemical.

Meanwhile, not satisfied with cracking the code on resistant rice’s immune reaction to blight, Ronald undertook the solution of our greatest food need – the development of a flood-resistant strain of rice.

“But doesn’t rice like water? Doesn’t every picture I’ve ever seen of rice fields feature somebody standing ankle deep in water?”

Welllll, it’s complicated. Rice growth can be stimulated by water-logged soil, and a shallow layer of water will kill weeds that threaten rice crops. Compared to weeds, rice is a champion underwater plant, so short-term flooding is a fine way to kill weeds but not  rice. But if rice remains submerged for a matter of weeks, as is the case with semi-seasonal flooding, the lack of sunlight and gas exchange will cause it to die.

“In the battle of fact against chant, fact always has the greater struggle, and will lose far more of the early skirmishes than it wins, but ultimately, thanks to people like Pamela Ronald… truth will win out.”

A strain was discovered, however, in Egypt that could withstand up to two weeks of complete submersion. Teaming up with David Mackill, Ronald set out to discover precisely what part of this strain’s genome conveyed the extra resilience to flooding, and to use the techniques of genetic engineering to introduce that gene into the rice varieties grown throughout Asia, where it is the overwhelming food staple. Suffice to say, she and her lab succeeded, found the gene, characterized what it did, and as of 2014 over four million farms are enjoying the benefits of her remarkable work.

The result is lessened seasonal food shortages, and more economically stable farming communities. The skills that allowed a college-age Ronald to analyze the complicated chemical dance between fungi and plants ended up saving potentially millions of lives the world over, and success on that scale has made Ronald a passionate advocate for greater education about what genetic engineering is and is not. Her book, Tomorrow’s Table (2007), co-written with her organic farming husband Raoul Adamchak, makes an elegant case for how the techniques she employed to incorporate the blight resistance of Malian rice and flooding resistance of Egyptian rice into more popular rice strains can be used to create crops that are naturally resistant to all manner of traditional pests, dramatically lessening the need for toxic pesticides.

The organic farmer and the food geneticist need not be enemies, she claims. They both seek means of lessening use of synthetic fertilizers and harmful pesticides.  They are both interested in finding unique strands of plants bearing useful traits and harnessing those traits to create more sustainable, less catastrophe-prone, farming practices. What divides them, ultimately, is mutual miscomprehension, the unjustified jumbling together of the honest and vital work of food geneticists with the unsavory business practices of corporate agriculture on one hand, and the gross caricaturing of all organic farmers as ignorant, anti-science, vitalist hippies on the other.

But if geneticists talk about what it is they do, and how it relates to what has been done by nature for ages, perhaps the tone of the conversation can change. We can learn about how plants naturally rearrange their genetic material constantly (a fact observed by Barbara McClintock a half century ago), and that life as we know it now is the ultimate result of radically different species having incorporated not just one gene, but entire genomes, in the primordial past (as Lynn Margulis’s endosymbiont theory maintains). The static, unchanging genes of the mid twentieth century are in fact vibrant, dynamic entities, but the public perception of them is still rooted in the old static model, creating a portrayal of genetic engineering as a practice somehow Outside of nature. To overcome those resistances, Ronald founded the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy to disseminate honest, peer-reviewed, multi-agency validated information.

We aren’t yet at a well-informed middle ground on the subject of genetics and food. The easy chant of “Frankenfood!” is difficult to combat, even with the most convincing of charts, figures, and studies. With genetic engineering, we can make insulin on a scale that at last meets medical demand. With it, we have dramatically reduced the need for pesticide use in some of the world’s most important crops. And with it, we have put at the hands of farmers the means to ease the hunger pangs of thirty million souls every year. In the battle of fact against chant, fact always has the greater struggle, and will lose far more of the early skirmishes than it wins, but ultimately, eventually, thanks to people like Pamela Ronald, who not only make our lives better but have the patience to tell us how, truth will win out. Because it always has, and because it must.

FURTHER READING: Pamela Ronald and Adamchak’s Tomorrow’s Table (2007) is a book for basically everyone. For uber-science nerds who might tend to look down on organic farming, it has a rational and scientific explanation of the methods and reasoning behind its methods that they might learn to appreciate. And for those dead-set against the methods of genetic engineering, Ronald’s explanation of what she actually does as a food geneticist and what world problems have been solved as a result is an eye-opening account that puts paid to the popular image of GMOs as the exclusive domain of big business mad science tyrants.

*** And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Year One and Year Two