Texas Tech University

Governor's University Research Initiative Award Makes Possible Texas Tech University's Hiring of National Academy of Sciences Member

George Watson

June 6, 2018

Luis Rafael Herrera-Estrella is a world-renowned researcher in cotton genomics.

Luis Rafael Herrera-Estrella
Luis Rafael Herrera-Estrella

With its world-class facilities, knowledgeable faculty and collaborations with industry leaders, Texas Tech University has already earned a reputation as one of the world's leading research institutions when it comes to the genetics, production and processing of cotton.

That reputation was critical as Texas Tech has received a major grant from the State of Texas' Governor's University Research Initiative (GURI) that has allowed the university to bring in one of today's top cotton genomics researchers.

Luis Rafael Herrera-Estrella, who was elected as a Foreign Associate Member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2003, will join the Texas Tech faculty in the Department of Plant and Soil Science within the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources (CASNR). He becomes Texas Tech's first NAS faculty member.

Herrera-Estrella joins Texas Tech thanks to a $5 million grant from GURI, which the university matched, in order to target one of the top plant molecular biologists in the world. Herrera-Estrella will build a team of scientists and develop an institute that examines how plants adapt to thrive in the presence of environmental stresses such as extreme heat and cold, drought and in the presence of brackish water sources.

GURI was created in 2015 by Gov. Greg Abbott's Office of Economic Development & Tourism and the state legislature to encourage universities to bring the world's top researchers in the areas of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) to Texas. The matching grant program assists institutions of higher learning in Texas with recruiting distinguished researchers, particularly targeting Nobel laureates and members of the NAS, in an effort to further economic and workforce development.

According to Texas Tech Provost Michael Galyean, bringing the nation's top researchers to the university has been a priority for both he and Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec, especially finding the university's first NAS member to join the five members of the National Academy of Engineers already at Texas Tech. Herrera-Estrella's arrival opens doors for future NAS members to come to Texas Tech and, hopefully, getting current faculty members elected to the academy, as well as elevating the university's research stature and highlighting the already groundbreaking research being performed at Texas Tech.

Michael Galyean
Michael Galyean

“On behalf of the university, I would like to extend our appreciation to Gov. Greg Abbott for his vision and support that has made possible the hire of a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a supporting team of researchers who will have a significant impact on educational programs and university research that benefits an area that is an important economic driver of our region and the state,” Schovanec said. “Agriculture represented a core area in the educational and research missions of Texas Tech when it was founded, and today our contributions in this area continue to gain national and international recognition. Dr. Herrera's research in cotton genomics will further the profile of the university as a leader in cotton and agriculture research, while also contributing to the economic development of West Texas and the state.”

Eric Hequet, the chairman of the Department of Plant and Soil Science who helped identify Herrera-Estrella as a prime candidate for this grant, said the institute will be composed of an initial cluster of five tenure-track faculty positions spanning the sub-disciplines of plant cell biology, developmental genetics, stress physiology and biochemistry, plant pathology and bioinformatics. It will form a research synergy on functional and comparative genomics of semi-arid crops and be supported by studies on genetic models.

Lawrence Schovanec
Lawrence Schovanec

“In addition to this new cluster of expertise, the Department of Plant and Soil Science has a well-established proficiency in various aspects of integrative plant stress biology, including plant epigenetics and epigenomics, cell wall biology, molecular plant breeding, quantitative genetics and phenomics,” Hequet said. “This additional expertise reflects already established research programs at Texas Tech that are recognized nationally and internationally in their own rights. These existing programs will collaborate with the new institute to create a truly integrative and interdisciplinary research and graduate training platform in systems biology in the Department of Plant and Soil Science and across the Texas Tech campus.”

Herrera-Estrella is known and respected worldwide for his work in cotton genomics, having earned the distinction in 2015 as one of the 100 most influential people in biotechnology by Scientific American. He previously served as the director and full professor of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity (LANGEBIO) in Guanajuato, Mexico, where he will retain his position as a professor emeritus.

According to his biography on the NAS website, Herrera-Estrella's research focuses on the molecular mechanisms that allow plants to cope with a continuously changing environment. In particular, he has studied the two fundamental processes of molecular responses to light as a source of energy and a developmental signal, and nutrient availability.

Eric Hequet
Eric Hequet

Herrera-Estrella was able to eventually identify DNA regulatory elements that allow plants to activate genes in response to light stimuli and the protein sequence present in many corresponding gene products that ultimately allow participation in the photosynthesis process.

Galyean expects Herrera-Estrella to fit in perfectly with the research already being performed at Texas Tech with its world-class facilities, such as the USDA Plant Stress and Germplasm Development Research Laboratory, and scientists both within CASNR and the Department of Biological Sciences.

A holder of 15 patents, Herrera-Estrella has published more than 180 research papers and 47 book chapters and other reviews while having delivered more than 200 presentations on his work. He served as a senior international research scholar at the Howard Hughes Biomedical Institute from 2012 to 2017 and earned the Dr. Luis Federico Leloir Award in 2012 from the Argentinian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

A native of Mexico, Herrera-Estrella also has served as the president of the International Society of Plant Molecular Biology (2001-2003) and in 2000, earned the gold medal from the World Intellectual Property Organization as one of the most distinguished inventors in Mexico, one of only three Mexican citizens to receive this honor.

Joseph Heppert
Joseph Heppert

Herrera-Estrella earned his doctoral and postdoctoral degrees in genetics from the State University of Ghent, Belgium. He received his master's degree in genetics and molecular biology from the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional, and his bachelor's degree from Escuela Nacional de Ciencias Biológicas Instituto Politécnico Nacional.

Texas Tech convinced the state and the GURI Board of the importance of initiating this research at Texas Tech by demonstrating how the institute will be beneficial both to Texas Tech and the cotton industry, one of the top economic drivers in West Texas. The matching funds were required to originate from somewhere other than government-appropriated funding within the university's overall budget.

“As Texas Tech aspires to enhance our recognition as a national leader in research, scholarship and creative activity, we intend to attract both internationally known and respected scholars, along with the highest caliber junior faculty to Lubbock,” said Joseph Heppert, Texas Tech Vice President for Research. “We are very grateful that the Governor's Office has agreed to partner with us in an attempt to attract such an internationally eminent plant science researcher to our campus.”

Heppert, Hequet and professor Benildo de los Reyes, the Bayer CropScience Endowed Chairman in plant genomics and the associate chairman for graduate programs in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, all played a critical role in helping develop the budget to help Texas Tech get the GURI grant and target and recruit the best researcher.

The GURI grant opens doors for the other top researchers from around the world to come to Texas Tech, and hopefully, elevate the tremendous work being done by current faculty. It also will elevate the university's research stature and highlight the already groundbreaking research being performed at Texas Tech.

“I am extremely excited about the commitment within the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources to build an area of international research excellence in the genomics of abiotic plant stress,” Heppert said. “Assembling new members of this team using support from Texas Tech and the Governor's Office will complement the talented plant and soil science faculty already conducting research in this area.”