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Even as a young child, reared in the small town of Centrál, Mexico, just north of Mexico City, Hernan Garcia-Ruiz wondered why the farmers in his area couldn’t grow certain valuable crops, such as zucchini and tomato–crops that would have added to the local economy and provided much needed nutrition for so many people. Why did those seedlings get sick and die, forcing farmers to grow other crops, like alfalfa, that were mysteriously able to survive?
As the very bright, intensely curious, eldest of seven children, Hernan instantly seized the opportunity to start high school with a highly sought after Fulbright scholarship. This opportunity eventually led him to study the reasons that plants develop viral diseases and then to acquire considerable scientific insight about the biological interactions between these deadly viruses and the valuable crop plants that they attack and kill.
“I was fascinated with the notion that plants become sick, just as humans do, and decided to spend my professional life studying how this happened and how plants might be cured or disease prevented.”
After obtaining his Bachelor of Science from the Universidad de Chapingo (Mexico), and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Hernan moved into several post-doctoral positions, including working with mentor, Jim Carrington, Ph.D., president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
In Jim’s lab, Hernan investigated plant/virus interactions at a very fundamental level. He is convinced that scientists won’t find a cure or prevention for plant viral disease, which account for the loss of billions of dollars annually throughout the world, without an in-depth understanding of how plants are susceptible to the virus disease, how viruses infect plants, and how some plants are able to resist infection by the virus.
“The situation is the same in humans,” Hernan said. “We are all susceptible to some viruses. Sometimes they are able to cause disease, sometimes we can resist them. Scientists have developed vaccines to prevent human viral infection. Could we do that for plants, too, in some form? Even with human infections, like influenza, we have to alter the vaccine every year, of course, because the viruses are always changing. This is exactly the same in crop plants. In fact, one part of our work here at the Danforth Center showed how plant viruses exchange genes to increase their variability.”
Such sophisticated research requires the best equipment and technology, both of which are available at the Danforth Center. “I can’t imagine doing such difficult work without the Danforth Center’s resources,” he said. “But it’s really a lot more than physical greenhouses, state-of-theart analytical equipment and a magnificent facility devoted to the study of important crop plants. It’s really about the people here–the dedicated scientists who work with each other every day. And it’s about the mentoring, the consultation and criticism, that we give to each other as we do the difficult work of improving crop yields. I, myself, am particularly grateful to Dr. (Jim) Carrington for his help and support in all of these studies on viral disease.”
For Hernan, it’s been a long journey from the young boy in Centrál, Mexico, who wondered why the village farmers could not grow zucchini and tomato, to becoming a scientific leader in the study of plant viruses. In a way, though, it’s been a very short path. Those farmers were unable to grow zucchini and tomato because the plants died from viral disease. “My sincerest hope is that my work will provide tools for farmers throughout the world to grow virus disease-resistant plants and that they will not be limited by such diseases,” he said with obvious intensity of purpose. “It’s all about making a positive difference in the lives of other people.”
Hernan continues to grow in his career and recently joined the faculty at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln as assistant professor.
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