Food Science

Plant geneticist breaks 200 mph while keeping up with fast-moving genetics field

Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer for Mars Inc., stands among alfalfa plants at one of the core greenhouse complexes he uses on the UC Davis campus on Thursday. Shapiro is a world-renowned cacao plant geneticist and avid motorcycle collector.
Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer for Mars Inc., stands among alfalfa plants at one of the core greenhouse complexes he uses on the UC Davis campus on Thursday. Shapiro is a world-renowned cacao plant geneticist and avid motorcycle collector.

Howard-Yana Shapiro may just be the fastest-moving plant geneticist on the planet.

Three years ago, Shapiro, now 68, coaxed his 1999 Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle across a Utah salt flat at more than 201 mph.

It’s not an accomplishment the soft-spoken Shapiro likes to dwell on. Instead, he prefers to talk about the work he does in plant genomics and sustainable agriculture.

That world is also a speedy one, with the science and technology used in genetic engineering changing at a breakneck pace. Shapiro is known around the world for leading the effort to sequence the genome of the cacao tree, whose beans are made into chocolate.

Shapiro straddles the academic and corporate sectors. He’s a senior fellow in agricultural sciences at UC Davis and also chief agricultural officer at Mars Inc., maker of Snickers bars and M&Ms.

Shapiro is paid by Mars and draws no pay from UC Davis. He is one of six full-time Mars employees with a presence on the UC Davis campus. Shapiro works on food supply and sustainability issues for Mars, whose corporate headquarters is in McLean, Va.

He works for a giant corporate conglomerate, but he’s no suit-and-tie man. With his long white beard and thick, black-framed glasses, Shapiro could be mistaken for a cast member of “Duck Dynasty.” He joined Mars in 1997, when the company bought his former firm, Seeds of Change.

Shapiro spends much of his time working for Mars in a garage office in his north Davis home. His office contains a desk and computer surrounded by more than 70 motorcycles he calls “game changers” in motorcycle design. He keeps 20 more in a side garage – and has five motorcycles parked, like gleaming Jeff Koons sculptures, in his living room.

When he is not working from home, he can be found at another office – the one Mars rents for him at UC Davis, where Shapiro is involved in several projects spread among seven greenhouses on the sprawling campus. His work includes research on how to best grow crops like rice – an important crop for Mars given its ownership of the Uncle Ben’s rice brand.

Shapiro works on genomic issues relating to crops like alfalfa, corn and tomatoes to assess which genetic variants can withstand droughts, pests and other factors. In that role, he interacts with doctoral students, he lectures, and he chairs the Agricultural Sustainability Institute.

One of the projects he is most proud of is his involvement in the sequencing of the cacao genome. That effort saw a coming together of corporate and university firepower, along with governmental support from the USDA and the Chinese government.

Shapiro earned an international reputation after putting the sequencing information into the public domain so farmers and scientists on three continents could grow a better cacao tree.

Shapiro said the Mars family, which owns the privately held company, could have insisted on owning the genomic material as intellectual property. He was surprised when they listened to his pitch that the genetic information should be made available to all.

The eventual boon that such information would have to the worldwide cacao supply made it an easy sell. “They got it,” he said.

In Shapiro’s mind, a free flow of genomic information leads to more research, which benefits cacao farmers and eventually helps the bottom line of a company that needs a lot of chocolate. He sees it as timely, given that cacao farmers are not able to grow enough trees to keep up with worldwide demand for chocolate.

“The genome-mapping effort has had repercussions throughout the cacao industry and has led to more accurate programs in identifying disease and pest tolerance,” said William Guyton, president of the World Cocoa Foundation.

He believes it took someone like Shapiro to make it happen. “He’s the kind of person that can transcend beyond the corporate world,” Guyton said. “He sees things through a lens that others in the corporate world do not.”

The Mars company, which posted $30 billion in revenue in 2012, has been partnering with UC Davis for four decades. The research that the partnership has engendered has allowed Mars to glean new methods in food safety and new ways to improve the company’s food supply chain.

The recent sequencing of the peanut genome at UC Davis was another key outcome of that partnership, with the results expected to allow the company to source more peanuts from farmers for its Snickers candy bars, its best-selling candy brand.

The company recently announced it would provide $40 million to help UC Davis create a new Innovation Institute for Food and Health as part of the university’s planned World Food Center. The goal: to foster breakthroughs in food, farming and health.

Shapiro has entered an agreement with UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi to plan how that partnership will work, Shapiro said, adding that the institute may become an independent entity on the UC Davis campus if it is not included in the World Food Center.

“There is certainty that it will happen. ... There is not agreement yet on how,” Shapiro said.

Not everyone sees the embedding of corporations into the fabric of a university like UC Davis as a good thing.

“A company like Mars is looking, at the end of the day, to sell processed food products,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director with Food and Water Watch, a national food policy advocacy group that has been tracking corporate funding at universities relating to food and water research.

Lovera said she thinks such relationships have a palpable effect on university research.

“There is the explicit question of whether you’re injecting bias into science when that science is being paid for by someone that has a financial interest,” Lovera said. “Even if there are enough firewalls and controls in place, ... you have to ask, what is the research agenda?”

Shapiro insists that for Mars, the partnership with UC Davis will have less to do with products and market share and more to do with scientific discovery, such as the future sequencing of plant genomes.

“When you have an institute, you have to have business partners,” Shapiro said. “It is not clear that everything that is innovated on will be Mars-specific.”

One of the most altruistic projects Shapiro has been spearheading is sequencing the genome of 101 African plants as part of the African Orphan Crops Consortium he created. That effort seeks to address obstacles African farmers face in acquiring the best seeds from which to grow the most productive crops. It also seeks to train African scientists in genomics.

“It’s the most audacious project I’ve ever worked on,” Shapiro said.

The information gleaned will be key to improving the nutritional value of crops, like cassava, that are crucial to African diets. All the genomic information will be put in the public domain. “No one was going to do the work on these specific plants – so why not give the information away?” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said his ultimate goal is eradicating a malady called “stunting.” That condition stems from poor nutrition in the developing world where low birth weight combines with insufficient feeding and nutrient depletion to stunt the growth of a child in the critical first years of life.

Thirty-nine percent of children under 5 in the developing world are stunted – around 209 million children. Stunting rates are highest in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Once stunted, a child’s cognitive development and learning ability is permanently reduced. In some cases, that condition can be passed on to subsequent generations, Shapiro said.

Shapiro, who was raised in Manhattan, said he was fascinated with plants as a child. His parents were both scientists, and their research and teaching duties demanded a lot of car travel. During those trips, his father was keen on having the young Shapiro solve math problems in his head while the car raced across the country.

He credits that early focus on math, and his capacity to see relationships between seemingly unrelated things, as reasons for his success as a plant scientist.

“I can see patterns in things where other people cannot,” he said.

To some extent, his impressive bike collection is an extension of his fascination for patterns. When most people look at it, they see a line of seemingly identical high-speed motorcycles. Shapiro sees a stark evolutionary road map.

The bulk of his collection are bikes made between 1983 and 2006. All the bikes that sit in his showroomlike garage led to a future design or visual design innovation. It’s an evolution that is now happening so rapidly he admits it is passing him by.

“There have been some gigantic leaps forward in motorcycles since 2006,” he said. “But I’ve stopped collecting.”

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.