María Coca, CSIC researcher at CRAG, passes away

Crag News

María Coca, CSIC researcher at CRAG, passes away

Expert in the study of plant defence responses, she was lately leading projects to produce antimicrobial peptides in plants

María Coca López, CSIC researcher at CRAG, passed away on March 22nd at the age of 52. Born in Sevilla in 1968, she graduated in Biological Sciences at the University of Sevilla, and got her doctorate in the same city, at the Institute of Natural Resources and Agrobiology of Sevilla, CSIC in 1996. After three years of postdoctoral stay at the Center for Plant Environmental Stress Physiology (Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA), she joined Blanca San Segundo's group at the Institute of Molecular Biology of Barcelona-CSIC, being part of the research teams that formed the CSIC-IRTA Consortium of Plant Molecular Genetics (embryo of the current CRAG) in 2003. She actively contributed to the consolidation of CRAG, participating in the management of the Molecular Genetics Department in three occasions. In 2007, she obtained a CSIC Scientist position, and currently she was co-leading CRAG’s research group “Plant immune responses to pathogen infection. Antimicrobial peptides for crop protection”, supervising independent lines of work.

María Coca was an expert in the plant’s defence mechanisms against pathogenic fungi, a research field in which she made important contributions, discovering, for example, natural inducers of the tomato plant defence against the fungus Botrytis cinerea, and targets for rice genetic improvement that could confer resistance to the blast disease. With an easy-going personality and a great ability for teamwork, she had numerous collaborations with colleagues from CRAG and other centres. In 2017, in collaboration with fellow CSIC researcher at CRAG L. Maria Lois, they discovered that the regulation of protein activity in plants through a mechanism known as SUMOylation is key to their defence against fungal attack. Currently, Coca and Lois co-directed a doctoral student, Diana Fuertes, who carried on with these investigations.

Recently, her group had identified in fungi a type of proteins with very stable, active and highly specific antifungal properties, whose use they patented for their application, both, directly in crops, and in postharvest for the preservation of fruits during their storage. Her latest financed projects were carried out in coordination with expert researchers in fungi from the IATA-CSIC in Valencia, specifically with José Marcos' team, a fruitful collaboration in which María Coca contributed her expertise in plants.

In recent times, she had also taken interest in the prospect that plants and plant cell cultures offer as biofactories of compounds of interest, including antifungal peptides, or even antigens of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that could be used for the manufacture of vaccines against Covid19. For these studies, María had numerous collaborations with experts in biotechnology and virology, such as José Antonio Daròs (IBMPC, Valencia) and Juan José López-Moya (CRAG), as well as with companies, since her work transcended scientific interest and she had a strong vocation to come up with applications for the benefit of society. Recently, two of her doctoral students, Tarik Ruiz (industrial doctorate) and Xiaoqing Shi, had defended their doctoral theses on these topics. Currently, two young researchers were working in her group: Laia Castillo and Adrià Bugeda, whose doctoral work will continue.

“María has passed away when she was in the prime of her scientific life. She had fought a lot for her projects and she was full of ideas, happy with her collaborations and with the scientific discussions in her group”, explains Ana Montserrat Martín-Hernández, IRTA researcher at CRAG. “And if as a scientist she was solid and enthusiastic, as a friend she was a rock to hold on to, lending a hand as many times as necessary. That was María. And all these being very discreet, without fussing”, adds Martín-Hernández. 

“Science is a demanding and rigorous activity that is done by people, and the quality of those who do science is a component that is added, as an extra value, to the work done. María Coca's scientific career, being admirable, is outshined when compared to her immense human quality. Her memory will continue with us and she will accompany us in the future, and if we are able to transmit her scientific and personal legacy, she will leave a mark on the next generations of scientists”, says her friend and collaborator Juan José López-Moya.

The news of her early death, on March 22, caused a huge commotion throughout the CRAG community. It was only a few days since she had been diagnosed with the tumour that ended her life. Until then, María was working and sharing a guessed smile behind the mask with anyone who came across her at CRAG.

CRAG has opened a virtual space to express condolences and share memories of María Coca. An annual scientific seminar will also be instituted in her memory.