Mexican Professors Revisit BTI’s Harrison Lab

by | Nov 10, 2014

Dr. Ignacio Maldonado-Mendoza and Dr. Melina Lopez-Meyer

Visiting scholars Dr. Ignacio Maldonado-Mendoza and Dr. Melina Lopez-Meyer from The National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) in Guasave, Sinaloa in Mexico, who are at BTI visiting the Harrison lab on a one-year sabbatical.

For the past several years, the fourth floor flow hood at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) has had a pair of scissors hidden in its drawer with a smiley face and the name, “Nacho” printed in white nail polish. Those of us who knew they were there kept them well hidden, but this past summer I had the pleasure to return them to their rightful owner who had just come back to work again in the laboratory of Maria Harrison.

In every research lab people come and go. Post-docs and graduate students might stay for several years. Visiting scholars might pass through for a month or so, or even return a few times, which is the case for visiting scholars Dr. Ignacio Maldonado-Mendoza (Nacho is the nickname for Ignacio) and Dr. Melina Lopez-Meyer from The National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) in Guasave, Sinaloa in Mexico, who are here on a one-year sabbatical.

The two met during their Masters studies in plant biotechnology at the Center for Scientific Research of Yucatan (CICY), after which they married and went on to work on their PhDs at Texas A&M University studying plant secondary metabolism. After finishing their graduate work, they both obtained post-doctoral positions at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK in the United States, where Ignacio had his first appointment in the lab of Maria Harrison working with arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM), and Melina worked in the lab of Nancy Paiva on plant secondary metabolism.

In 2000, Melina and Ignacio were invited back to IPN in Sinaloa, Mexico to start their own research programs; however, because the Sinaloa campus was fairly new at the time, the situation was tough. They had very few resources to start with, and were lacking both basic laboratory equipment and the funds to hire students, post-docs, or technicians. Melina remembers, “We knew it would be shocking – the system is tougher [in Mexico] – but we never imagined it would be that tough.”

After three years of slow progress at IPN in Sinaloa, they decided to leave their positions for a second post-doctoral term, and this time both of them worked for Maria Harrison at BTI. It was her second post-doc that converted Melina to the study of AM symbiosis. While they were here, she and Ignacio contributed to a project looking at local and systemic changes in Medicago truncatula gene expression induced by AM fungal colonization (Liu et al. 2007), as well as helped to set up the Harrison Lab in its new home at BTI.

After two and a half years of their second post-doc, IPN hired them back once more to continue with the labs they had left in Mexico. This time around, the campus in Sinaloa had more resources. In their current positions at IPN, they have each been able to continue working with cellular biology of AM, but they also maintain a focus in applied research. Ignacio works with phosphate and arsenic transport in the fungus (González-Chávez et al., 2014), while his applied research has led him to identify a bacterial species that is able to greatly reduce the severity of Fusarium verticillioides root rot in maize (Figueroa-López et al., 2014).

Melina’s research focuses on systemic resistance, looking at how AM fungi in plant roots are able to confer resistance to foliar pathogens, specifically in tomato and common bean, two important crop species in Mexico (Mora-Romero et al., 2014). For her applied work, she is searching for bacteria that may protect common bean from Sclerotinia sclerotiorum also known as white mold. She reflected on the practical aspects of this research; “You can get in touch with [agricultural] producers and try to do something that can solve a problem.” She also pointed out that “On the one hand we use science to solve problems, but we also have to teach why it’s important to apply research based on science – that it’s worth the time and patience it takes to invest in science, for instance, to develop biological products and management practices based on scientific research to solve a problem either of a pathogen or yield in the field.”

Now, in 2014, after 9 years at IPN, Maldonado-Mendoza and Lopez-Meyer have returned to the Harrison Lab at BTI for a one-year sabbatical, during which they will each be working on their respective projects concerning arbuscular mycorrhiza, making use of recently published genomic and transcriptomic data for AM fungi.

“[A sabbatical] is a very important thing in your career. You have to wear so many hats in a research position, but this is a good time for you to reconsider all the things you have done and accomplished, and what you want to accomplish in the next 5-10 years,” remarked Ignacio. “It’s a good personal time to reconsider what next path to take…where you’re going to take your career. You don’t have time to think when you’re a professor – it’s just hectic all the time.”

“I think it’s great that we decided to come back, because we could have gone many other places,” Melina commented, referring to both BTI and Ithaca. “We really like the diversity in cultures that you have at the schools here, and the atmosphere of acceptance.” Joining them for their sabbatical are their two children, Rebeca and Daniel, who are enrolled in Ithaca schools. In the couple’s first visit to BTI their children were too young to experience Ithaca, so they are excited to get to share all of the local activities with them in their return. They look forward to many festivals, talks, and performances, and will even be participating in a winter farm-share.

Maldonado-Mendoza and Lopez-Meyer will be visiting the Harrison Lab at BTI through July of 2015.

To learn more about the work in Ignacio Maldonado-Mendoza’s lab in Mexico you can watch this video.

Papers mentioned above:

Figueroa-López et al., 2014. A high-throughput screening assay to identify bacterial antagonists against Fusarium verticillioides. Journal of Basic Microbiology. 54: S1; S125-S132.

González-Chávez et al., 2014. Localization and speciation of arsenic in Glomus intraradices by synchrotron radiation spectroscopic analysis. Fungal Biology. 118: 444-452.

Video link on the work conducted at Nacho´s lab (in Spanish):

Mora Romero et al., 2014. Functional Biology. PvLOX2 silencing in common bean roots impairs arbuscular mycorrhiza-induced resistance without affecting symbiosis establishment.

Liu et al., 2007.The arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis is accompanied by local and systemic alterations in gene expression and an increase in disease resistance in the shoots. Plant Journal. 50(3):529-44.

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