It’s no surprise that 2020 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Sylvia Blankenship made a career out of working with nature.
Though she grew up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Blankenship and her family spent summers on the family ranch in Texas. Her experience on the ranch taught her a great deal about the outdoors and led her to develop an appreciation for rural life. She also spent time gardening with her mother, which is something that later translated to her career.
Pursuing Her Passion
Blankenship was drawn to horticulture not only because of her love of flowers and plants, but also because of her desire to find a career connected to the outdoors, as well as the resurgence and interest in the environment when she was an undergraduate in the 1970s. By the time she began her studies at Texas A&M University, Blankenship had developed a strong interest in plant sciences. “I was becoming more and more interested in how plants and flowers grew and why they did certain things under certain conditions outside and inside the greenhouse,” she said.
After completing both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture science at Texas A&M, Blankenship went on to earn her doctorate in the same specialty at Oregon State University. It was at Oregon State that Blankenship made the transition from studying ornamentals to focusing on food horticulture, working on the ethylene biosynthetic pathway and completing her dissertation on ethylene in pears.
When she took a teaching and research position at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in 1983, Blankenship began her career by working with apple growers. Her connection to the apple growers gave her insight into their business needs, such as delivering quality produce to buyers and the negative consequences of failing to do so. “With produce, it's so different than other products because it's so perishable…I knew that they were getting some loads turned down because the apples were too mature. The apples would get to these buyers and they would start to be looking soft. They just weren't firm enough. It was a problem for apple growers and not just in North Carolina. It was true in other places as well.”
Collaborating on Ideas
Blankenship met NIHF Inductee Edward Sisler by visiting his lab and observing a technique he was working on related to ethylene. She believes taking this kind of initiative is an important step for young scientists, saying, “If somebody else is working on the same thing or has a little bit different expertise, you need to figure out what they’re doing and learn how can you benefit each other.”
Ethylene is a small, naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas that stimulates plant development and fruit ripening by docking in plant cell receptor sites. In order to stall these chemical processes, something else must take the place of ethylene in the receptor sites. The two began working together on experiments and they eventually received a USDA grant to identify an ethylene receptor. Blankenship and Sisler found the answer in their development of 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP), a compound that blocks ethylene perception in plant cells.
Blankenship and Sisler’s discovery drastically changed the floral and fruit industries. 1-MCP was patented in 1996 and licensed by Floralife for floral crops. In 1999, AgroFresh was formed to commercialize 1-MCP for fruits and vegetables. Their product, SmartFresh™, was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in the United States and introduced in 2002. Today, SmartFresh is used on more than 30 crops, including 50 to 70% of the apples harvested in the United States. Licensing fees for 1-MCP have also brought in more than $25 million for NCSU, the highest royalty revenues in the school’s history.
Looking back on her career, Blankenship said she’s most proud of how her discovery has made an impact for both consumers and growers. “I think the big benefit to consumers from 1-MCP is that they have a better quality product in the end. When they take those apples home or take the flowers home, they have something that's going to last longer.”
She added, “One of the biggest pleasures that I have is when an apple grower or somebody walks up to me and says, ‘You helped my business. You saved my business. You changed the way I do business.’ It's so heartwarming, and I am so glad that they benefited from it because that's what I wanted to do.”
Along with her colleague Edward Sisler, Sylvia Blankenship will become one of our newest Inductees at the 48th Annual NIHF Induction Ceremony. Look for more blogs introducing our inspiring 2020 Inductees at invent.org.