My interest in biology was, from early youth, that of an outdoor biologist with heavy focus on birds. This is still my major hobby, after 60 years.
How did a lifelong ornithologist get sidetracked in such a way that he is now known for his work as ‘plant genetic engineer’ – everybody ‘knows’ that these people have no respect for nature – and his Golden Rice? I studied biology, majoring in zoology, but was converted to botany by the personality of Josef Straub, a professor of botany and director of the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research.
My inspiration to take up science was the phenomenon of totipotency of plant cells, and I spent a considerable part of my career trying to learn more about it. We still have very little idea why and how a leaf cell specialised for photosynthesis manages to develop into a fully functional embryo, if freed from the context of the leaf tissue and provided with a simple mineral culture solution.
But then I was sidetracked again. I was fascinated by the engineering potential provided to us by the totipotency of plant cells. And that’s why, circa 1972, I developed into a genetic engineer interested in practical solutions, motivated by the problem of food insecurity of so many millions in developing countries. From then on, until my retirement and beyond, I invested of all my capacity and that of my research team into the development of genetic engineering technology for food security crops such as rice, wheat, sorghum, cassava, and into trying to rescue harvests and improve the nutritional quality of staple crops.