Regents Professor Ronald Phillips is a world authority on modern plant genetics and crop science.
Seeding the future
Regents Professor Ronald Phillips has created his own green revolution
By M.J. Pehl
December 4, 2007
With his sonorous voice, striking smile, and bountiful silver hair, Ronald Phillips could be taken for a veteran anchorman. He's not; yet Phillips, a Regents Professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, does possess one journalistic trait: He can tell you about all the latest developments in crops and agriculture--many of which rest on his work. His office, complete with a bronze ear of corn doorstop, sits near the wheat and corn fields on the St. Paul campus. After 40 years of research at the University, he looks back on a sterling career in plant genetics while still forging ahead with new discoveries. Phillips was first exposed to plant hybridization as a young boy on a farm in Indiana, where his parents worked for a seed company. In high school he decided to pursue study in plant genetics. He went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from Purdue University and a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, followed by postdoctoral work at Cornell University. In his research Phillips seeks to improve cereal crops by selecting important traits, using techniques he has developed that couple plant genetics and molecular biology. The result is crop varieties that differ in traits such as yield and nutritional value. "You end up with the same kind of product as far as the farmer is concerned, but it can have some special traits like insect resistance or increased nutritional value," Phillips explains. Take, for example, rice--a staple crop for over half the world's population. A new variety, called golden rice, has genes for a higher level of vitamin A. "If we can improve the vitamin A content, it would have quite an impact on the health of people around the world," he says. Phillips serves on the board of the International Rice Research Institute, which is currently working to create rices that will grow under natural conditions and adapt to varying conditions of water supply. In Africa, for instance, this could mean a strain of rice for farmers who cannot afford irrigation, or a rice that could survive flooding.
"If we can improve the vitamin A content [of rice], it would have quite an impact on the health of people around the world."Phillips points out that the University's was one of the early research programs in modern agriculture-related plant biotechnology. "The University has provided a great opportunity to be on the cutting edge of these developments," he says. These days, crop breeding is a serious business involving serious tools like DNA sequence mapping systems and massive computer work. "We're not just working with soil and water anymore," Phillips says. But Phillips never thought his work would become so controversial when he began in the 1950s. He acknowledges the public controversy surrounding genetic engineering, and says it's not the technology that should be worrisome, but rather the kinds of products being produced. "In fact, over the past 10 years, over a billion acres of biotech crops have been planted with no issues," he says. In 1991 Phillips was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1993 he was named a Regents Professor by then-President Nils Hasselmo. "Oh, it was a big surprise!" he laughs, adding, "I view it as a recognition of my work, and it carries with it a responsibility to assist the University in any way you can." Among other honors, he served as the USDA's chief scientist in charge of the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program in the late 1990s. He is a founding member and former director of the University's Plant Molecular Genetics Institute and Center for Microbial and Plant Genomics, which have now merged to form the Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute. This May, Phillips received the Wolf Foundation Prize in Agriculture from Israeli President Moshe Katsa in the Knesset. The prize recognized his groundbreaking discoveries in genetics and genomics and his advances in plant sciences. Phillips and his wife directed the Wolf Foundation to give the $50,000 award to the University of Minnesota Foundation to establish scholarships. "The University has been a great place to be," he says. "I like the Midwest, and I admire the ethical values of the people around me. "I've been on the faculty for forty years. It feels like five." Phillips plans to retire a few years down the road so he can enjoy his family and pastimes like fishing and boating while still in good health. He loves taking guests out on his boat and hearing them say, "I didn't know you spent any of your time doing stuff like this!" But he'll also tell you that retirement is just "the right thing to do." "It's a fast-moving field," he says. "It's important that these positions turn over to others." But for now, Phillips remains absorbed in his work. "There's a thrill of discovery, and you get a real high," he says. "I'm still very excited about what I do."