Texas Tech professor Luis Herrera-Estrella is known worldwide for his work with cotton’s genome. And he’s the university’s first National Academy of Sciences faculty member.
The native of Mexico will begins his second year in the Department of Plant and Soil Science this fall and he is hopeful that his research and that of colleagues he’s still recruiting will make a lasting mark.
“I came to Texas Tech because I felt that there was an opportunity and a challenge to make a difference and that’s why I’m here. I’m going to establish a world class research program, I will recruit the people we need, and that will later bring a lot of resources back to the University. So this investment they’ve made in me, I think it will be fully retributed in the future. I came to make a difference in the scientific atmosphere of Texas Tech. And I hope, you asked me, that my presence here will serve to attract other prominent scientists and other members of the national academy.”
Herrera-Estrella’s arrival in Lubbock was aided by a $5 million grant from the Texas' Governor's University Research Initiative, which the university matched.
Herrera-Estrella, who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2003, is building a team of researchers who will help him in the newly established Center for Functional Genomics of Abiotic Stress. New greenhouse facilities will enable the group’s work.
The South Plains is the world’s largest contiguous cotton-growing patch and with a dwindling Ogallala Aquifer, Herrera-Estrella’s work will examine how plants adapt to thrive in the presence of environmental stresses. Those include extreme heat and cold, drought and in the presence of brackish water sources.
“We need to work hard to improve the genetics of cotton because farmers are now suffering because of drought, it will get worse. So we need to use any technology available to improve not only drought tolerance but we need to develop varieties that produce high quality fiber on the drought conditions because drought decreases the fiber quality.”
Herrera-Estrella already has hired two post doc fellows and as many as four PhD students to join his research team here. He’s still working to get two principal investigators, one a specialist in population genomics and the other in genome editing. He says he initially had doubts about being able to persuade high-quality researchers to come to Lubbock.
“I wasn’t sure that we were going to be able to attract such people to Texas Tech, because we are a smaller university, compared with the top ten. And we are a university in a remote place in Texas, and that’s a challenge to bring in people. They like the idea of this new institute, I think they have seen my work and they trust that I can lead competitive work.”
Despite his worldwide recognition, Herrera-Estrella says didn’t feel he and his research garnered notice or import in Mexico. He says he feels differently in Lubbock.
“It’s the first time in my life that I have felt I was a little special, and the reception I had, and the way people treat me, it’s really something that I didn’t experience before. It’s gratifying and I get self-confidence because I now feel that I’m respected.”
Cotton, known still as “the fabric of our lives” faces stiff competition these days from polyesters and other oil-based synthetic materials. Herrera-Estrella says there is one natural material that cotton could be spun with to create fibers stronger than synthetics.
“Silk. That is much stronger than synthetic fibers, it’s more flexible and has nicer properties. It is a big challenge, but you could start combining different biological polymers to produce something equal or even better than synthetic fibers. So there are ways of really imparting these technologies but we need to do a good research program and get support from the producers and the government.”