Chilton has shown that the crown-gall tumors of plants are caused by the transfer of a small piece of DNA from a plasmid in the pathogen, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, into the host plant, where it becomes part of the plant's genome. The T-DNA can furthermore be used to transfer genes between pro- and eucaryotic organisms. Chilton's work has thus been essential in transforming genetic engineering of plants from science fiction to science. Research areas include plant genetic engineering, crop improvement, biological control organisms, Agrobacterium tumefaciens and Agrobacterium rhizogenes as gene transfer agents, and vectors for introducing new genes into plants. Another area focuses on chromatin structure and scaffold attachment regions and their effect on transgene expression and stability.
Chilton's research has made it possible to grow crops with improved yields, resistance to insects and disease, and the ability to withstand adverse environmental conditions.
Chilton was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1985, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, North Carolina Board of Science and Technology, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. She is the recipient of the American Institute of Chemists Bronze Medal, Rank Prize in Nutrition from the UK, University of Illinois' David Gotlieb Medal, and the American Chemical Society's Hendricks Medal.
Information as of April 2002