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Inventor Spotlight: Dr. Cecilia Martinez-Gomez

By Kara Headley

Dr. Cecilia Martinez-Gomez is harnessing the power of bacteria to improve plant growth.

Martinez-Gomez, assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, began studying genetics and metabolism while earning her Ph.D. 

“I find it extremely engaging and exciting that based on data, we can generate testable models to either rebut or demonstrate a metabolic process,” Martinez-Gomez said. “The results of our experiments allow us to unravel cell mechanisms that with some creativity, may be applied to generate technology.”

Conducting research, Martinez-Gomez came across special microbes, known as methylotrophs, which are able to use one-carbon compounds as their sole source of carbon and energy. 

This bacteria can reduce the use of fertilizer and pesticides. This bacteria often lives on or around the plant, and by using it to help with plant growth, these chemicals become obsolete. 

This research can benefit the agriculture industry by helping with plant growth in a sustainable manner.

Research at Martinez-Gomez’s lab aims to define how these bacteria use one-carbon compounds, which include greenhouse gases like methane, industrial residues like methanol and main components of pesticides. 

In addition to benefitting plant growth, Martinez-Gomez is studying how this bacteria converts these toxic compounds into products like biofuels and bioplastics.

Martinez-Gomez also addresses another growing problem: landfill overflow, as the methylotrophs have the ability to also clean landfills of electronic waste. 

“I enjoy the flexibility to apply this knowledge to solve current problems. Fixing carbon from toxic sources while increasing crop growth or producing value added compounds is an exciting avenue that many groups are also developing,” Martinez-Gomez explained. “Researchers in my field are incredibly collaborative. It is a pleasure to work with them and synergize our expertise.”

Martinez-Gomez worked with the MSU Innovation Center to identify commercial partners and obtain funding to run experimental trials. Part of the MTRAC Tier II program, funds have been used to isolate new microbes, design a pipeline to identify microbes enhancing plant growth and health, and run plant trials to define the efficiency of the plant probiotic.

“Working with the Innovation Center has been a motivating experience,” Martinez-Gomez said. “I am learning about opportunities to meet commercial partners and how to build bridges for these interactions. They provide ample guidance to achieve successful partnerships.”