In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center-affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.
Read on for an interview with Roberto Gaxiola, School of Life Sciences Professor and Senior Global Futures Scientist.
1) How did you get interested in food systems issues?
In Mexico, there are two kinds of agriculture; the agriculture of the rich landowners versus smaller producers. Those that can pay the high prices of fertilizers and that have water rights. They also have the best conditions to grow things, and they make good business. But the general population, those who practice more traditional agriculture perhaps have to limit their agriculture practices and resources. Which is basically the main problem here. I studied for my bachelor’s degree in Guaymas, Mexico and there I witnessed something firsthand, which is you have these extensions of land and nothing is growing. I had questions like, ‘What are you guys doing? Why are you not growing here?’ And one farmer told me, ‘Well because the water of this area is salty. And corn doesn’t grow with salt.’ At the same time, I was studying marine biology and mangroves. I said well. ‘Salt is not inimical to plant life. So there has to be a way, if plants know how to do it, some plants can do it.’ At that time, a very important discovery was the report of the first transgenic plants ever made by Mexican author Luis Rafael Herrera-Estrella. I read that article with the professor I had and the next day I went to him and asked him, ‘Do you think it’s possible? To take the genes present in mangroves that allow mangroves to grow in salt water and transfer them to corn. And he told me in principle with this technology, yes.’ That was a dream, and with that, I decided to go and study. Four years of my Masters degree in Mexico, 3 1/2 years of my Ph.D. in Germany, and two more years as a tenure faculty back in Mexico. I then moved to MIT Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, and it was there that I was able to identify a gene in plants that had features that caught my eye immediately. Those plants developed huge roots that conferred them drought resistance and more biomass, higher yields when grown without salt. These other features were overwhelmingly more important, especially for production agriculture. Plants that have larger root systems are more efficient in water and nutrient intake.
2) Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.
I am most interested in plants’ mechanisms to regulate root activity and nutrient uptake. My research team and I seek to identify ways to increase plant root biomass – a strategy for developing crops that use water and nutrients more effectively. Using molecular biology and physiological investigations, we have identified a protein within plant membranes that regulates the movement of sugar from leaves to roots. We discovered now that these transgenic plants are generated not only to make larger root systems, they change the root-associated microbiome. What is the root-associated microbiome? The bacteria from the soil work with the plant to help it acquire nutrients. The associated bacteria from the roots of these transgenic plants are different from normal plants. Interestingly, these root-associated bacteria can be transferred to normal plants allowing them to develop larger and more active root systems.
3) What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?
My excitement is about the knowledge we’re finding of the relevance of the bacteria that grow in the ecosystem of the root. We can modulate the behavior of the plant, and we have proof that some bacteria make the plant grow better. We have a selected group of those bacteria that we know they’re doing this. We need now to identify the consortium of beneficial bacteria and if possible cultivate them to produce them at will with the idea of using them as growth enhancers for a more sustainable agriculture.
4) What’s your favorite weeknight meal?
Everything appeals to me. As I get older, I’ve been trying to eat more vegetables, whatever they are. It’s difficult to say what my favorite food is. I’m just glad I’m preparing mole negro from Oaxaca this week!