Esperanza Martinez, Explorer of Plants and Bacteria

Amal Martinez Romero Gently navigating the halls of his lab, an anaerobic chamber grows oxygen-sensitive bacteria and an incubator persistently stirs up a set of flasks containing microorganisms burrowing into the pale yellow of the culture medium. There are sounds, footsteps, petri dishes, nitric acid, beakers, desks, computers, molecular biology reports, and the sounds of birds filtering from outside into the facility. Genomics Center (Gulf Cooperation Council) from UNAM On the Morelos campus, a microcosm of research where the Mexican scholar resonated around the world.

In the next few days, Dr. Martinez Romero will receive an award in Paris from L’Oreal Foundation And UNESCO that celebrates 45 notable marks from all regions of the world and who have been honored for their merits in the last three editions of the award. The COVID-19 For delivery, but their scientific career continued to face the challenges posed by the world from various trenches.

Science Shows the Way and Dr. Esperanza Martinez Romero is part of this anthology, whose story is always worth highlighting.

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off the chain

The scientist says she was passionate about neurobiology. He wanted to work there the human mind, but he realized that “beheadings” weren’t a thing. He holds a UNAM flagship degree in biomedical research. The idea was to do basic research from the start. “The motto was: Research will be learned by doing research, so from the first year we have joined research groups and can choose the laboratory in which we will work to direct our concerns.”

The anatomy made her nervous and doing a simple intervention in the salamander to study his inner ear made her realize she couldn’t work in animal physiology, so she began to explore the world of plants and realized that plant physiology was instantly becoming unusual. A passion nurtured through over 40 years of experience.

When he started his career, he started working on a new development in nitrogen fixation. By inoculating bacteria in bean plants, a new world opened before his eyes. The bacteria were able to make the plant grow wildly in nitrogen-poor soils.

“We believe that vegetables containing beneficial bacteria for humans can be produced; that is, lettuce containing probiotics in place of salmonella; and that there is potential to replace pathogens with beneficial bacteria.”

bacteria, that Microorganisms In terms of a popular imagination with sharp teeth and always with bad intentions, they have revealed themselves as allies in the processes that have contributed to the design of bio-fertilizers that save millions of dollars in large crop areas around the world.

Dr. Martinez also points out that this type of research, which seeks to better understand the interactions between plants and bacteria, goes further and is now part of the new scientific revolution that began with this century: the revolution of the human microbiome. This new field of knowledge shows that not only do plants benefit from bacteria, but humans can also do so because they can synthesize amino acids, essential vitamins and even neurotransmitters that affect the functioning of the human brain. “So I went back to studying the brain, but in a different way,” says the researcher who will be awarded the prize.

A very important thing that has been developed at the Center for Genomic Sciences is the study of the molecular part of bacteria. “We were pioneers. Many inoculations were done in the world, but they didn’t explore what the bacteria were, nor how their genes were. We made crosses and got to know different profiles and different groups of bacteria associated with beans and some of them have yet to be described.” This work led them to describe new types of nitrogen fixing bacteria It is associated with plants, there is even a plant, Rhizobium esperanza, by which the path of the world is recognized.

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New projects for a sustainable future

Currently, his team is also describing new tree species, such as legumes native to Mexico. Trees are the heroes in the installation NutrientsThey actually fertilize the soil and by pulling out the leaves they fix nitrogen. They also have roots so deep that they reach deep water levels that pump water to the surface.” Martinez points out that they are using the Ingeae (a genus of tropical subtropical trees and shrubs, a member of the legume family Ingeae infrafamili) to cover the coffee trees in Veracruz, in a project Developed in collaboration with Universidad Veracruzana.

“At Morelos, we work with Lycium trees that are found in valleys. They are great because they maintain fertility and withstand extreme conditions like those caused by climate change. These nitrogen-fixing trees can be extreme resistance to changes in climate and water stress,” the scientist notes and points out that they are also beginning to genetically characterize new bacteria from these ecosystems.

Another new area of ​​study they are experimenting with is nitrogen fixation in animals, such as the Galapagos Tamaulipas tortoise and teporingos. “This is a new area, a different concept that we opened in the lab. We study the microorganisms of animals that have a carbon imbalance, they have a lot of this element and a little nitrogen, which is what happens in plants. Our dream is that one day humans will fix nitrogen” .

In the faeces of a Galapagos Tamaulipas turtle they isolated Klebsiella varicolaa natural indoor plant It is found inside tissues, but it is also pathogenic to humans. In turtles they are not malicious, and have no resistance. This is a specific group of bacteria that turtles preserve and pass on from parents to offspring.

We found something remarkable, Klebsiella varicola from turtles excretes alanine (an amino acid) and not ammonium, which is slightly processed and loses its toxicity. These bacteria isolated from turtle feces can be used to promote nitrogen fixation in animals. These are our new challenges, and through them, humans can be freed from eating animal protein all the time and in large amounts, representing a change in the environmental impact of what we consume,” says Martinez.

We study the microorganisms of animals that have a carbon imbalance, having too much of this element and too little nitrogen, which is what happens in plants. Our dream is that one day humans will fix nitrogen.”

Hope Martinez Romero

The first animal study model was the cochineal cochineal, an insect they continue to work with. “This species was domesticated by our ancestors and now grows in greenhouses with a high production of cochineal. They are large species and this difference in growth allowed them to produce a great deal.” Its size also contributes to scientific knowledge, because this model lends itself well to molecular analysis, since its dimensions allow for very precise dissections. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are present in the ovaries, which are passed from the mother to the offspring. “Mammals don’t have those wonders of bacteria transmission.”

It ensures that plants do photosynthesis, have access to all the carbon dioxide, but nitrogen always limits agricultural production and in natural conditions, but association with bacteria allows them to get that nitrogen they don’t have. “We don’t fix nitrogen because we eat a lot of protein, but in some communities, like Papua New Guinea, they feed mainly on tubers, and pure starch, so nitrogen fixers have been found in feces that are similar to those in plants, in fact, we found that There is an ecological parallel between gut and roots.”

The specialist points out, however, that we still have to fight to extrapolate the process, because mammals create antibodies against everything foreign, like bacteria and enzymes. “So we are trying other, simpler animal models to better understand these interrelationships.”

Martinez asserts that these symbiotic relationships between plants and bacteria have in many ways a relevance to a sustainable world in the future. “It is not just about nitrogen fixation in biofertilizers, the bacteria in our gut determine our health, as they have been linked to cancer, autism and neurodegenerative diseases, among other conditions, and this type of research has a great future because we believe that vegetables can be produced with bacteria that are beneficial to humans, namely lettuce. Which contains probiotics instead of salmonella, that is, there is a possibility of replacing pathogens with beneficial bacteria.”

The laureate points out that there are currently many young people interested in these new areas of knowledge, but unfortunately there are limited job opportunities and this is disappointing; However, in the end, perseverance matters, institutions and acknowledgments that celebrate women’s commitment to scientific work are always a strong wink. multiply in the new generations.

proven track record

Dr. Esperanza Martinez Romero is a pioneer in the study of beneficial bacteria in plants.

He holds BSc, MSc and PhD degrees in Biomedical Research at UNAM.

Postdoctoral in France at INRA in Toulouse.

Researcher at UNAM’s Center for Genomics, SNI Level 3.

2005 National University Prize, and L’Oréal-UNESCO Prize 2020.

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