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The sense of taking care of plants

Marta Almazán

Marta Almazán

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Marta Almazan, head of the Unit of Nematology, Entomology and Postharvest of the R&D of Futureco Bioscience, dreamed about caring for animals in farms when she chose to study technical agricultural engineering. Besides being fascinating, she discovered she was good at caring and curing plants, so she began her professional career focusing on Plant Health, first at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) and later in Futureco Bioscience, where she hopes to remain many years contributing to thicken the supply of agrobiological products, and also to prevent and cure plant diseases, providing greater security in the food chain of fruit and vegetables that we eat.

What was the path that led you to Futureco Bioscience?

I began Agricultural Engineering at the UPC of the Mediterranean Technology Park in Castelldefels. When I finished I decided to do a master's degree at the same university, while working as an intern in the laboratory of plant health with Xavier Sorribas and Cesar Ornat. There I began my research career, helping them in trials conducted for the university and for companies like Futureco Bioscience, whose laboratories were located a few meters away.

How did you join the team?

From the Department of Plant Protection of the UPC the first in vitro assays were done to evaluate potential biological control agents provided by Futureco Bioscience. The R&D Department of Futureco was about to move to a new location in Olérdola. Their R&D needed to expand its space and staff. As they already knew the way we worked in the department where I was, I was hired a week before the inauguration of the new facilities in Olérdola.

Did you put in place any laboratory in the new facilities?

Yes, Phytopathology. By then it was quite empty, because there was not enough staff to make large trials. At the beginning, I initiated breeding and maintenance of nematode populations and performing in vitro and in vivo assays to test the nematicide activity of the large collection of microorganisms of Futureco Bioscience. I was also in charge of the breeding of insects such as whiteflies, and trials with them. Later I was also tuning the part of plant pathology of diseases caused by soil fungi of the pathosystems we have now.

What is a Pathosystem?

It is the set of a plant or crop with its disease or pathology. For example, a pathosystem could be a potato plant with Rhizoctonia solani, a fairly common fungus that affects the tubers and the vigor of the plant in general. To test those biopesticides that we research and develop, we must first put in contact the plant with the pathogen, and see that disease occurs in laboratory conditions. Once the pathosystem is assembled, we can try different Biopesticides, test which are effective and determining the times and doses of application that are effective and have more curative and preventive properties.

Do you like what you do? 

I love it. I started in agricultural technical engineering, specializing in farms. I made subjects of physiology and plant pathology, but I started that career because I wanted to touch sheep, cows ... I dreamed of working in a farmhouse caring for animals. When I started as an intern in the Department of Plant Protection of the UPC, I discovered that I liked research, and more specifically Plant Protection. I was surprised to see how I could have an impact on the plants by subjecting them to treatments, their reactions and the effects of what you were doing to them. I also loved to apply knowledge into something tangible.

And your job reaches farms through the products you help to develop in Futureco Bioscience.

Yes. Part of my job is also to design field trials for experimental products, but also for products that are already developed, in order to complete the official reports required for a product to be approved for commercialization and marketed. For this type of testing you must determine and calculate the doses that you are applying, what can happen in the field, and it's not the same to try something in a pot under controlled conditions that in a greenhouse in Seville, for example.

There's more variability in the meteorological and ecological conditions in the field.

In the field, in addition to observing how it affects the pesticide or bio-stimulant to the crop, you can also see how it influences the harvest, how the products affect crop yield if doses that are used in laboratory or chamber are optimal and if you are doing something that can easily be applied to reality. It is very interesting and rich. I like a lot.

In addition you get along some surprise. You recently discovered that a bacterium used as nematicide also had growth promoting activity. 

Yes. Lysobacter enzymogenes. We presented and published it recently.

Among all that you do, what fascinates you most?

Dismantle trials. You plan a trial. You design it. Sow plants. You have a microorganism that you are testing. The plants are in the climate chamber for two months, which seems eternal. You dismount that trial. See if all the job you've done previously has served to conclude whether the microorganism is good to follow further testing or you must switch to other the microorganisms. It's all a process.

You mean to reach the results.

I would say also reaching the result manually. I like to work with data, but touching the plants, observing them, at the end of the trials is what I like most. Discover galls of nematodes in the roots, for example.

Where do you imagine you'll be five years from now? 

I hope that in Futureco Bioscience. Perhaps with more responsibilities, more physical space to do larger trials, including trials in fields or greenhouses of our own, without hiring them outside,depending more on our team than on equipments outside.

What do you think you can provide to the company during the next five years?

Enthusiasm. I love what I do. I spend a great time working hard. I get up at 6 in the morning happy. Not many people can say that. I also can bring the knowledge I already had and all that I learn with the rest of the team and with our daily work. Doing things in a big way, do more science and expand what we do.

Which do you think are the most promising research lines you are working at?

The main lines I am carrying out are bionematicides development and post-harvest treatments. They are two very important lines, especially regarding bionematicides. There are fewer products available in the market that can be used to control nematode pests in crops. Those are very limited because they are usually very aggressive and toxic pollutants. They produce a lot of waste, and are chemicals based on heavy molecules that remain in the environment and take many years to degrade. You have also to take care about the doses, because they are quite toxic.

Hence, it is almost mandatory to develop biological nematicide to more conventional alternatives.

The options for biological control of nematodes that exist today are still quite picturesque and rudimentary. The bionematicide product we are developing will be positioned very easily, being a breakthrough. A top sales product. I'm sure. Nematodes are the great unknown of pests, yet affecting a large variety of crops and causing huge losses. People often speak of fungal pests, or air plagues of insects. But the nematodes are in all soils. A change in culture conditions or weather may accelerate the outbreak of a plague of nematodes, which is not always easily recognizable, sometimes it seems simply that the plant lacks nutrients, water or fruit and leaves fall without apparent cause. Nematodes can destroy crops. Bionematicides research is one of the most promising future lines.

In addition of post-harvest protection.

Yes, here comes our product Biolasting, which is giving very good results on fruits, laboratory and field. Recently we presented the results of in vitro tests we had done in apple and peach. In apple, Penicillium and Collecotrichum, two important postharvest pathogens, and in peach with Monilia laxa, which is also quite devastating.

Why is it so a relevant research line?

Because social awareness and concern about what we eat grows. It is not the same to know that a plant has been treated with a fungicide in field than with fungicide in the fruit store. One imagines that is stored from a warehouse to a tray or box, and from there to the mouth. Field and vegetables seems more distant in touch with residues in fruits already collected. People are much more aware about waste and what goes into their bodies. Developing products that prevent diseases in fruit storage, and does not leave residue or are easily washable and harmless is something that is being promoted and driven from the administration and civil society.

What is your favourite product? 

Biolasting. It's the most I've worked on its development. Also with NOFLY, although I use to run more efficacy trials and quality controls. NOFLY is already being sold throughout the world and the trials that we do are of quality, stability and efficiency, more a routine. With Biolasting I started from zero, we did tests to determine the dosage ranges of pathogens for which it is effective, and it was all to be done when it arrived to my hands.

You gradually reveal the extent of its properties.

I have lived the beginning until now. It is closer to me, personally speaking, and it is a product already finished, new. I also work with the prototype products based on microorganisms that we are testing and will soon be put on the market as products, but still have no definitive formulation. Biolasting is already in the market and that is also why it is favorite for me. I have seen its birth. I feel I have contributed it to be there. In addition, I also like the type of tests we do to prove it, as we use fruit. The laboratory smells pretty well for a week, as you have apples there. The truth is that working with Biolasting is very grateful, as it is also giving very good results.

Your job seems to have a lot of sense.

I feel very lucky. My mother told me when I chose my studies, "what you will work in after studying Agricultural Engineering, if you live in Barcelona? Where are you going to work?". When I discovered research and then got into Futureco Bioscience, with projects like the ones I I just explained, I felt that is what I wanted to do. I am very happy, I've been very lucky, in the situation of our country, with its high youth unemployment, to end the master and have a job as the one I have, with sense, makes me feel very lucky.

What do you enjoy most after work?

Soffing (laughs). I'm pretty homemade. In the evenings I usually stay with friends or with my mother and sisters, who live nearby. I do not usually do many things. Sometimes I get the flash of enrolling on dance classes, but usually I stay in the neighborhood or at home. We usually go more out on weekends, we like to go to the mountain, and go almost every weekend to Montseny. To look for mushrooms if it is mushrooms season, or asparagus, if it asparagus season, or just for a walk. Lately, I'm getting to do-it-yourself activities in order to fix the house well, making holes in the kitchen, putting the counter, restoring the kitchen, the living room or painting furniture.

Would you recommend some book and film?

For six years I have not been to the cinema because at home with popcorn we are also very comfortable. A film that I love, more for its photography than for the film itself, is Amelie. It is very bucolic and fun. Otherwise the books... Game of Thrones! Is addictive.

And what about music?

I listen to lots of music, and now more with Spotify. And the radio, which I really like. I like Sting, Jamiroquai, soul, rock of the eighties and nineties ... But there is no concert or group for whom I'd wait in a queue for 7 hours. I hear radio stations as RAC105 and M80, when I'm home, in a relaxed evening. Now I'm discovering the Scottish music, my brother-in-law is Scottish and he showed me some modern Celtic music, a great discovery.

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