In the lab with Pamela Ronald

At Work: Vice president of feedstocks and director of grass genetics, Joint Bioenergy Institute (JBEI); and professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis.   

Her Focus: Studying rice and Arabidopsis (a member of the mustard plant family) as model species for understanding how to extract sugars from potential energy crops such as switchgrass and Miscanthus.

In Print: Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. Oxford University Press (2008). Written with her husband and organic farmer, Raoul Adamchak (above, with Ronald).   

The big question. When?
That’s a question scientists always hate to answer. It’s possible to do it now; we can get fuel from grasses—the thing is, it’s really expensive. There are a lot of factors that are involved that are at some level hard to predict and are outside the realm of science such as the price of oil, how fast we can use some of our marginal lands to produce switchgrass, incentives to farmers. On a scientific basis, I think there is progress made every day with making the process cheaper and more cost-efficient, but when we’ll be driving up to the pump and filling our cars with biofuels… I think it’s going to be at least 10 to 20 years.

Better plants
First-generation biofuels include fuels from corn grain. The problem is that the farmer must replant the crop every year and water it and till the soil. Our goal for next-generation biofuels is to develop an approach using stocks and leaves from perennial grasses or agricultural wastes—grasses that you don’t have to water and fertilize and replant every year. You also don’t have to give them as much nitrogen and you don’t have to spray them with insecticide. But we want to be able to get the sugars out easier. 

What we’re trying to do is to build on what the plant has already given us, which is this fantastic ability to grow for 15-20 years without replanting, but to make it so that we can get the sugars out easier.

Immediate challenge in the lab
We’re trying to really understand how the cell wall is put together so we can take it apart better, really, and so we’re doing fundamental experiments trying to figure out what genes are important for cell wall biosynthesis and modification. The way cell walls are put together, there are a lot of complex molecules that are intertwined and there are other molecules on top of that. If you can figure out a way to break up some of these molecules or if you can figure out a way to enrich for sugars that are easier to make fuel from, then you immediately increase your efficiency. It’s a balance because the cell walls are there for a purpose; they’re there to protect from pathogens and environmental stresses. In other words, we’re trying to figure out ways that we can modify the plants so we can get to the sugars easier without compromising the integrity of the plant in diverse environmental conditions.

Her career inspiration
Rice feeds half the world’s people. Early on I wanted to work in an area that was interesting from a molecular, genetic, scientific point of view, where you could make fundamental discoveries, but also where you could have a large impact on the lives of poor farmers and their families.

Biggest misconceptions about genetic engineering  
I think that something people don’t know is that genetic engineering is simply a process of developing seed and that the process is benign. The more important question is—what does the seed do? Can it enhance a sustainable agriculture system? Those are important questions for any kind of seed, whether it’s genetically engineered or not.

I always encourage people to take a step back and ask those bigger questions about how we’re going to conserve our land, use less water, use less insecticides, feed the growing population, benefit small farmers.

If a particular genetically engineered crop fits into sustainable agriculture, then we should use it. Each new variety must be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

Native grasses in the garden  
I like grasses. I’ve worked on rice for a long time, so I’ve always been very interested in grasses. I actually planted the Miscanthus in my yard before I started working on bioenergy.
Laundry in the backyard, too

We definitely, as a family, have been very concerned about energy consumption. That’s why we hang out clothes to dry. We don’t even have a dryer. We cut down our energy bill 75 percent one year by getting rid of our dryer and making a few other changes.

Best unexpected gift
My lab isolated a gene conferring tolerance to flooding, which is a major problem in flood-prone areas of the world where much of the world’s rice is grown. My collaborator at IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) introduced the gene into varieties favored by farmers in Bangladesh and India. The variety has been quite a success (farmers are seeing three-to five-fold increases every year). After reading about our work, a woman in India sent me this beautiful batik of women planting rice in the field. That really touched me.

Sparking a life’s work
My mother was an avid gardener and her parents were avid gardeners, so that certainly had an influence on me.  I was always into growing food. And then I spent a lot of time in the wilderness. Even at a very young age, like 12, we’d go off and go backpacking. Very early on, I got interested in identifying all the plants in the Sierra Nevada wilderness. I remember meeting a botanist. We’d been hiking.

We were high on a mountain pass, deep in the wilderness and we ran into a man and a woman sitting in the sun identifying plants. They were with a university or working for the state, probably. And I thought, “Oh, that’s what I want to do. That’s a good job.”

Meeting her husband
His farm was on a river and we have a mutual friend whom he was going to teach how to paddle a kayak. So, I went along. I went botanizing while they went boating.

Dinner table conversation
A lot of people have asked us that. That’s why we wrote this book, “Tomorrow’s Table.” We’re really plant people.  I had worked on a couple of organic farms when I was younger and he had studied science so we definitely have overlapping interests. We just like plants and we like food and we like science.

Most enjoyable part of teaching and research
Talking to students and post-docs about their most exciting results. That’s always the thrill. That’s what drives us. It’s really exciting to make a discovery on the forefront of knowledge, something no one knew or no one had thought about before.

You have to be very flexible and open as a scientist because there are new ideas coming in; sometimes old ideas have to go out.

The more research we develop the more solid the framework becomes about a particular model for a particular cellular process or biological structure.

Least fun part
Being too busy. When the research is so exciting, it is hard to find time to take a break.

First car
My first car was a diesel hatchback. What was the name? I can’t even remember any more. I’m not into cars, obviously. But I remember it got pretty good mileage. I was tuned in pretty early on.



Bioenergy Connection welcomes comments on content we publish. While we encourage differing points of view,comments should move the conversation forward constructively. We reserve the right to restrict comments that contain inappropriate content, such as offensive language, verbal abuse, etc.

Post a Comment