Dr. Pamela Ronald shares how science feeds the world

As disgusting as it is to use banal literary clichés, forgive me for this: it is impossible to overestimate the importance of rice to humanity. A cereal grain, it is the staple food for more than half of the world’s population (especially in Asia and Africa) and, providing a fifth of the cumulative caloric intake for humans, is arguably the most important food crop we have ever cultivated. Cultures flourish and empires rise and fall thanks to things.

But there’s a catch: it has to grow in water, like those artfully irrigated fields in which the farmer toils, his feet submerged up to his knees. Conversely, it means that rice farming – the crop on which so many of us depend – is highly susceptible to being devastated by floods. A food disaster ensues.

This makes the work and achievements of Dr. Pamela Ronald almost unattainable. She is a plant pathologist and geneticist, currently serving as a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and the Genome Center at UC Davis and a member of the Innovative Genomics Institute at UC Berkeley.

Her major achievement—achieved with colleagues David Maciel and Kenong Su—was pinpointing and isolating Sub1A, a submergence-resistant gene in the rice genome that allows the rice plant to withstand flooding while producing a high-yielding crop, after as the floods recede.

Reflecting on the story of Dr. Pamela Ronald

Her story is one of those quintessentially American: her father is a Holocaust survivor who, after 12 years of “statelessness” and roaming in search of an education, will eventually settle in Northern California. It was in this region of extraordinary beauty that Ronald’s mother introduced her to the wonders of nature, instilling in her an appreciation for local ecosystems and the importance of preserving pristine wilderness. While exploring this wasteland, she first encountered botanists (who identify wildflowers), realizing that she could make a profession out of studying plants.

This was followed by Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from both institutions, respectively. A Fulbright scholarship took her to Sweden, where she earned a second master’s degree in plant physiology. The educational capstone will be a Ph.D. – completed in 1990 – in Molecular and Physiological Plant Biology from UC Berkeley. It was during this postdoc that she felt the pull of rice, an inclination stemming from the aforementioned fact that it feeds half the world’s population: “I hoped that my world could eventually be applied to help farmers, very of whom live on less than $3 a day.”

The work to identify and map key rice genes was a collaborative effort, with research spanning the globe, from rice farmers in Vietnam to her and her colleagues working in a lab at UC Davis. Ronald notes that “the rice community and genetics are close, and we share a common goal: to help smallholder farmers grow rice in a way that will alleviate challenges and improve food security.”

She recounts those heady days in the 1990s when the work that led to the isolation of this flood-resistant rice gene Sub1A was done: “In 1995, my lab isolated the rice immune receptor XA21. My friend and colleague Dave McKill stopped by my office soon after this discovery to tell me about a project he was working on. He explained the devastation caused by floods in rice fields in India and Bangladesh and asked me if I would cooperate in isolating the key gene. I was excited to join the project, and we quickly got to work (using the platforms my lab had created to isolate XA21) to isolate the Sub1A gene.”

Since then—and with the help of organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—this variety of rice has spread around the world. Its effectiveness was demonstrated last year after the devastating floods in Bangladesh and eastern India. Here, more than 6 million farmers grew the variety and indeed it had a 60% yield advantage over conventional varieties.

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