Federico Ariel answers the phone from his residence in Paris, south of the mighty Ville Lumière, where there is a lush garden full of trees and “French-style” decorations. In neighboring houses, seekers stop like him but from all over the world. Because he has lived in France for six years, he says he feels there as if he were at his “second home”. He admits that after receiving the award from UNESCO, he did not yet realize the importance it had in his career.
He is a researcher at the Instituto de Agrobiotecnología del Litoral – of dual accreditation Conicet Santa Fe-UNL -, Doctor of Biotechnology and a few days ago – together with four other colleagues from other parts of the planet – the prize of the first edition established by UNESCO in 2021 In partnership with the “Al Fozan” Foundation (from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). This award promotes the promotion of young scientists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Nothing less.
Ariel, with much study and hours in the lab, today stands on the shoulders of the world’s forefront of science. There is no bragging about the local scholar, though, who was actually born in Buenos Aires, lived in Paraná for a long time and today feels like an “adopted Santa Fe”, since he is a graduate and teaches at the University of New England. He returned from France in 2016 as a scientist repatriated through the Roots Program and has since been based in this capital.
“This prize was a great surprise. It is the first time that UNESCO has awarded it to young people in the field of science. Of course I had my expectations, but until they notify you of the prize, you will not fall short: it is a lot! When I was nominated, in 2022, I was 39; I turned 40 I just had, so this was my last chance to introduce myself…”, smiles the award-winning scientist, in conversation with El Litoral.
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Applications must be submitted by the academic institutions themselves. Made by Federico Ariel by UNL. Out of 2,500 applications from around the world, five winners have been selected, including the local researcher. Other young scientists who have received this award are Abdoun Atangana (Cameroon); Xiaomi Fu (China); Hisham Amram (Egypt) and Jelena Vladic (Serbia).
The doctor in biotechnology narrates that the UNESCO awards ceremony in Paris looked like a movie montage, “something like a Netflix series,” smiling again. The organizers of the event put on a huge audiovisual production with the winners, with many cameras recording and filming, with lights and even with makeup.
Since 2010, Ariel has been working on the so-called RNA biology and biochemistry in plants (crops). RNA is a molecule that has gained prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic, as it has been used by several coronavirus vaccines — such as those developed by Pfizer and Moderna (some Christians may remember the expression “messenger RNA”). “RNA is the central molecule of biotechnology in the 21st century, there is no doubt about that,” he told this paper.
“With our team, we realized that we could use RNA molecules to give information by ‘throwing’ them into plants (crops). Plants, unlike humans, take RNA and process it: this happens, for example, if they spray them with RNA In the water through a mist. Plants absorb it. Humans have to inject it (a vaccine), the scientist explains.
Building on this idea that this molecule could be used as a “channel of communication” with plants, Federico Ariel’s research team in 2021 and 2022 received very important support from the nation’s Ministry of Science and Technology. “This financial assistance allowed us to work extensively to see if it was really possible to stabilize RNA, to throw these molecules at plants and see if they would respond. We did very well,” he affirms.
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From there, the path was paved. The researcher, along with his coworkers, has formed a technology-based company (the startup “Apollo Biotech”), recognized by Conicet and UNL. Today they have their laboratory in the Technology Park. The key to it all is the type of information that is given to the plants through the RNA molecule.
“And so, what we have done and are still doing is showing the plant, in RNA form, a little bit of the pathogen. But that plant generates defense molecules, and they are not antibodies (as happens with humans). Thanks to that defense, this plant can prevent infection. In short, we are developing RNA-based solutions to replace toxic synthetic pesticides, i.e. agrochemicals.”
These pesticides “are dangerous for the environment and people and are widely questioned: in fact, there is a very broad social demand for the kind of food production model that we have in Argentina and other countries. We are basically trying to replace agrochemicals with RNA-based technology,” he puts in. Context.
On the other hand, the startup gave Federico Ariel and his team the opportunity to better communicate with the productive sector and conduct field trials. “Things are going well. This would have been unthinkable five years ago; at the time we weren’t sure that this particle-based technology could be applicable in agriculture, for example.”
“But we’re applying it now, and if we get past the current regulations, we could be among the first companies in the world to make crop RNA technology. Hence the prize: We’re ahead. We’re very grateful.” “And this award greatly motivates us to continue our research,” the scientist concludes.
“Science and technology is a team project and none of this can be done alone but as a team. That is why I value the work teams of the Institute and the company so much and share it with my work teams and with the collaborators at I am happy for the recognition that is always welcome and helps us stand out for what we do,” he said. Dr. Ariel’s remarks were published by Conicet Media.
The jury that presented the prestigious award was made up of Dr. Edna Mata Camacho, biologist (Colombia), who founded the Tolina STEM Education Program; Professor Didier Queloz (Switzerland), who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Michel Mayor in 2019 for the discovery of the first exoplanet; and Dr. Faghi Zona Maina (Niger), NASA scientist.