Published: March 15, 2023 By

Pam Ronald, distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and the Genome Center at the University of California, Davis, will deliver this year’s Rose M. Litman Memorial Lecture in Science.

If you go

Pamela Ronald—"Breeding Crops for Resilience to a Changing Climate"
Rose M. Litman Memorial Lecture in Science

  • When: Thursday, April 27 @ 4:30–6 p.m. (reception to follow until 8 p.m.)
  • Where: Chancellor’s Hall Auditorium, Center for Academic Success & Engagement (CASE)

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Ronald studies plant genes that control resistance to disease and tolerance of environmental stress to increase yield dramatically and improve food security globally for the world’s poorest farmers. 

In her April 27 talk, Breeding Crops for Resilience to a Changing Climate, she will discuss the development of climate-resilient rice varieties, the genetic basis for plant resistance and CRISPR-mediated strategies used to enhance carbon sequestration of rice.

Over a 30-year career, Ronald has contributed significantly to the understanding of abiotic stress in plants and, in particular, rice. She has also advocated for employing sustainable farming and biotechnology to increase food security and fight climate change. “When I started my career, there were people interested in agriculture, though there probably weren’t that many of us, but we thought a lot about the three pillars of sustainable agriculture—social, economic, environmental,” she said. “How do we make agriculture thrive, how can we get more protein out of agriculture, how can we reduce chemical use, how can we enhance soil fertility and use our land efficiently?”

Making breakthrough discoveries with global impact

In her lab at UC Davis, said Ronald, “We have been working on a big project for many, many years on plant microbe interactions trying to understand essentially how plants and microbes communicate.” In 1995, she and her team isolated a gene, XA21, that gives rice plants the power to detect and resist bacterial blight and, in 2015, they discovered and characterized the protein required to activate the plant’s immunity. That knowledge can be applied to the development of resistant crop varieties and therapeutic reagents with the potential to block microbial infection in both plants and animals. 

Ronald also played a leading role in isolating the rice Submergence Tolerance 1 gene. That research facilitated the development of high-yielding rice varieties now grown by more than 6 million subsistence farmers in India and Bangladesh who had been losing more than 4 million tons of rice per year to flooding. “I really wanted from an early age to contribute somehow—and food, the environment, agriculture were really early interests of mine,” said Ronald. “And, so, all these years later to be able to contribute to a project like that has been really exciting for me.”

“Our big questions still are understanding how microbes communicate, how we can engineer rice plants to be more resistant to disease, or to reduce methane emissions or sequester more carbon,” said Ronald. The rapid advance of genetic technologies has provided new tools to generate crops that are resilient to climate change, resistant to infection and better at sequestering carbon. Ronald and colleagues also use CRISPR genome editing to help crops adapt to climate change while keeping more carbon in the soil. 

Affiliations and recognition

Ronald is director of Grass Genetics at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, a member of the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her book, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food was selected by the New Earth Archive as one of the 25 most influential books with the power to inspire college readers to change the world. 

In 2022, Ronald received the International Wolf Prize in Agriculture—regarded as “Israel’s Nobel Prize”—given by the Jerusalem-based Wolf Foundation to scientists and artists who have driven humanity forward with intellect, creativity and curiosity. The foundation noted Ronald’s work in isolating the rice tolerance gene which allows crops to survive two weeks of flooding while boosting yield by 60 percent. Last year, Ronald was also awarded the Vinfuture Prize for female innovators.  

In addition to tackling food insecurity and climate change, Ronald’s other ongoing goals revolve around the success of her students and public trust in science. Ronald, like Rose Litman for whom the lecture is named, derives satisfaction from contributing to the success of other scientists. “I'd like to see my postdocs and students really thrive in their careers, be happy, get the jobs they want, and do some really interesting research,” said Ronald. 

Public trust in science is another imperative for Ronald, particularly since she works in a field in which the specifics of what she and her team do can sometimes be misunderstood, causing controversy. “Public trust in science is extremely important, by having scientists engage with the public more clearly, more often, so that science doesn’t seem like some mysterious type of profession … to make us seem less foreign,” she said. “Science is part of the human endeavor.”