After growing up on a small farm in Illinois, he earned his Ph.D. degrees in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Illinois, and then did post-doctoral research in biophysics at the University of California-San Francisco. After joining Monsanto in 1981 as a researcher, he led a group that in 1983 produced the first genetically engineered plants. In 2013 he was awarded the World Food Prize along with two other pioneers of genetically modified plants.

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