Alumni Success: Dr. John Ryals | College of Science
June 30, 2022

Alumni Success: Dr. John Ryals

Once Dr. John Ryals discovered his love for science, he never looked back. He transferred to UNT in the fall of 1975 (when it was still called North Texas State University) with an associate degree from Mountain View Community College. Though he originally came to the university to study music, Dr. Ryals was soon invested in taking more science courses, eventually changing his major entirely to a double in biology and chemistry. Though he had always enjoyed learning about the world around him, it was two books he read the summer before he transferred that altered the trajectory of his academic and career path.

"One [book] was The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski. The book had been the basis of a BBC special by the same name. Bronowski was educated in mathematics at Cambridge University and the book and film series really got me interested in the evolution of intellectual thought and biology," said Dr. Ryals. "The second book was The Molecular Biology of the Gene by James Watson. It was a book about how molecular biology worked and some of the great experiments done by the giants of molecular biology. I started taking biology and chemistry courses and my interest continued to grow almost into an obsession."

After earning his foundational B.A. at UNT, Dr. Ryals went on to graduate school at UT Dallas and entered the world of prokaryotic molecular biology. "I made a breakthrough by nailing down how RNA polymerase controlled RNA synthesis using a molecule call guanosine tetraphosphate," said Dr. Ryals. "I published ten papers in my graduate research and later realized that was a lot."

His success led him to a job offer at the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Zurich with Dr. Charles Weissman, a researcher who has recently cloned human interferon and who was a co-founder of the company Biogen. His work with Dr. Weissman was just the beginning of a fruitful career as a scientist working in genetics, specifically plant genetics and bioengineering.

"I got my first real job as a scientist with Mary-Dell Chilton, one of the pioneers of the new science of Agricultural Biotechnology at the newly founded Agricultural Biotechnology Research Unit at CIBA-Geigy in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina," he said. "There I took on a project in understanding a poorly defined phenomenon in plants called induced resistance, which led me to an interest in innate immunity in plants."

Eventually Dr. Ryals became the Head of Research for CIBA, which launched the world's first genetically engineered corn seed. He went on to start his own successful companies in the industry of plant genetics and commercialization, including Paradigm Genetics and Metabolon, which is known to be the world's leader in metabolomics.

After thirty years' experience in the biotech industry, he is currently leading another company he co-founded called AgBiome, which focuses on discovering bacteria in the soil and using them for crop protection against insects and pathogens.

"By mixing the microbes with chemicals we can reduce pesticide use by 60-75%," said Dr. Ryals, who refers to himself as a "failed retiree" after several attempts to retire from the business. "I love science and still want to be active. It has been a great adventure."

Dr. Ryals is also a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at North Carolina State University. His advice to students looking to becoming serious in their field is to spend their time wisely. "Being an undergraduate is generally your first journey from your home; have fun but learn as much as you can."

Dr. Ryals will be presenting a virtual talk entitled "A Journey From UNT" for the UNT BioDiscovery Institute on July 6, 2022 at 10am. Those interested in attending can contact Dr. Kent Chapman at for more information.