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Researcher from São Paulo named on international list of best plant science and agronomy scientists

Hungria holding samples of bacteria in the soil biotechnology laboratory at EMBRAPA Soy in Londrina, Paraná

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Agronomist Mariangela Hungria started working with soybeans in the early 1990s, when research on how to improve cultivation of the crop was in its early days. She has worked at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) for 40 years. In 2021, she was named one of the world’s 100 best scientists in plant science and agronomy by, which compiles international data on scientific contributions in various fields. Hungria is the first scientist from South America to make the list.

“Although I’m really pleased to be named on the list, it’s important to highlight the lack of Brazilian researchers on it, especially considering the country’s importance in the field of agricultural production,” says Hungria, who specializes in soil biotechnology, an area of study that seeks to improve nutrient uptake by plants, making them more resistant to climate change, pests, and diseases. “Our findings on biological nitrogen fixation are internationally recognized, especially when it comes to soybean production,” she explains. Of the more than 2,000 scientists recognized by the website, only 36 are from Brazil. “This low number suggests the need for more investment in scientific research in this sector,” she adds.

Born in the city of São Paulo, Hungria decided, while still at high school, that she wanted to study a degree in agronomy. “I was really interested in nature and farms, as well as other subjects related to biological sciences, specifically microbiology,” says the researcher, whose teachers were perplexed by her announcement that she wanted to be an agronomist. “At that time, at least in the capital of São Paulo, agriculture was not seen as having a big future and it was undervalued, in addition to being dominated by men. The school even called my mother in to talk about my choice,” she recalls.

Certain of her decision, she started her degree at the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ) of the University of São Paulo (USP) in 1976. During her master’s degree, also studied at ESALQ with funding from FAPESP and concluded in 1981, Hungria investigated the efficiency of biological nitrogen fixation in bean cultivation, a subject she continued to study for her PhD, completed at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ) in 1985. “Nitrogen fixation is a biological process mediated by bacteria capable of capturing this chemical element from the air, a method that removes the need for nitrogen fertilizers, the production of which is highly damaging to the environment,” she explains. In 1982, she started working as a researcher at EMBRAPA Agrobiology in the city of Seropédica, Rio de Janeiro, where she carried out studies on beans.

In 1991, after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Davis, in the USA, Hungria moved to Londrina, Paraná, and began researching soybeans. “When I decided to come here and study soy, I was told there was little work to be done because there were no problems affecting its cultivation,” she says. The warning came from a pioneer in soil biology research, Johanna Döbereiner (1924–2000), with whom Hungria had studied a specialist diploma at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) some years earlier. “Döbereiner was a wonderful mentor, and it was she who invited me to work at EMBRAPA,” she recalls. “But contrary to what she had said, I realized there was a lot to be done, so much so that the various studies we have carried out since then have enabled a great leap in productivity of soybean crops in the country,” she concludes.