Meet our Scientists
Ray Shillito: Genes are the Future
Since he started his research career, botanist Dr. Ray Shillito has focused on plants. He has cultivated plants from a single cell, completed pioneering work on transgenic maize and developed methods for detecting genetically modified seed. Today, he is building professional networks to connect people in agriculture and agricultural biotechnology.
I have had the privilege of watching and helping Agricultural Biotechnology go from basic research to a major contributor to sustainable food production.
My career in plant biotechnology looks a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. There are so many pieces that have come together in the last 40 years. Today my job involves seeing the big picture to integrate many different facets of agricultural biotechnology. One chief focus is to get people from diverse areas of the agricultural food chain together. We, at Bayer, are at the base, doing the science, developing new products and producing seed. Farmers are on the next level. Then there’s the food processing industry, which puts agricultural products into all foods – even the chocolate chips and almonds in an energy bar. At the end of that chain, we have the grocer and the consumer. I’m often the technical liaison between Bayer and people in the seed, grain, or food processing industries. I organize or take part in conferences and workshops that bring everybody together.
Born with a Green Thumb
Plants have always been a big part of my life. I grew up in England, and my parents had a beautiful English-style garden. As a teenager, I took pride in our great collection of fuchsia. When I started my career as a botanist, I got involved in plant-tissue culture, and growing plants from a single cell. That was really cool. Then the first transgenic plants were created. These are now commonly called genetically modified organisms – or GMOs. Back then, I had a chance to pioneer some new techniques in that field. I was one of the first scientists to make transgenic plants without using Agrobacterium as a vector. The first patents I received were for tissue-culture methods and the insertion of genes into cells without using Agrobacterium.
Detecting Changes in the Genes
For the past 15 years, I’ve developed detection methods based on the presence of the newly expressed proteins in transgenic crops. I have been involved in developing standards for methods to reliably detect transgenic crops. Basically, the challenge is how to identify transgenic seeds in a pile of grain. There are two basic steps to this: You have to get a representative sample, then test it using the detection method, either based on the proteins expressed, or the DNA that is present. One of my big contributions is the development of common standards acceptable to the various regulatory agencies in different countries; these are the international standards we now use worldwide.
Lessons from Agriculture, Flowers and Golf
I have had the privilege of watching this technology go from basic research to a major contributor to sustainable food production. Getting away from basic research and interacting with other people in agriculture has been an eye opener, and has taught me many valuable lessons. I think scientists in general tend to be too isolated from farmers. We should change that. I have learned to respect growers more and understand their hard work. This has made me realize the importance of our work in developing new agricultural technologies. Farmers deserve to get the best tools we can provide.
In my free time, I like to get outside as much as possible. I enjoy playing golf. It’s a great game, because you have to totally concentrate on it. Nothing can intervene, not even work. And staying true to my love of plants, I try to grow a flower garden. But that comes with a lot of challenges. Many plants I grew in England won’t grow here in our Southern climate in North Carolina. No fuchsia. I had to reinvent my gardening skills.
CV: Ray Shillito
Born in Louth, Lincolnshire, England
1974 Bachelor of Science, Biochemistry, University of Hull, in Kingston upon Hull, England
1978 PhD., Botany, University of Leicester, England
1980-1986 Postdoctoral Fellow in the group of Ingo Potrykus, creator of “Golden Rice,” at the Friedrich Miescher Institute, Basel, Switzerland
1986-1997 Staff Scientist, then Project Leader, Agricultural Biotechnology Research Unit, Ciba-Geigy, Research Triangle Park (RTP), North Carolina
1997-2002 Manager, Biotechnology Support, Bayer Crop Science, Goldsboro, and then Research Triangle Park (RTP), North Carolina
2002-2014 Technical Coordination Manager, Americas, Bio Science group, Bayer Crop Science, RTP
2014-current Bayer Research and Development Fellow, Crop Science Division of Bayer, RTP