Viruses for the greater good

Floricel Gonzalez was going to college – she didn’t have a choice. A first-generation Mexican-American, her parents were adamant she would not work in the Yakima Valley fields as they did.

“My parents don’t have past middle school education,” Gonzalez said, “but they always said if you want a better future you need to have an education and you need to go to school.”

Gonzalez heeded their advice, attending and graduating from Washington State University with degrees in Microbiology and English. She is now a research scientist exploring how to kill bacteria that plague grapevines.

To avoid financial devastation among grape growers and ensure the world continues to get the highest quality wine varieties, Gonzalez takes to the lab to use viruses for good.

“We live in a world where antibiotic-resistant infections are a thing, and people want to limit the use of those antibiotics because people are dying from these antibiotic-resistant infections,” Gonzalez said. “The idea is we can substitute antibiotics with what is naturally out there, and the natural predators of these bacteria are these viruses called phages.”

In hopes of combating bacterial infections, and with antibiotic resistance in mind, Gonzalez treats grapevines – just like the ones throughout the Yakima Valley where she was raised – with bacteria infecting viruses.

Specifically, she works with Xylella fastidiosa, a vector-transmitted bacterium that causes Pierce’s disease. The disease spreads quickly and will kill grapevines in one to five years if left untreated.

It’s a journey that started a decade ago, back in 2012, when Gonzalez moved from central Washington, where her parents migrated to build a new life for their six children, to her new home at WSU.

That’s where she studied in professor Anthony Nicola’s laboratory and found a passion for laboratory research and virology.

In the Nicola Lab, Gonzalez worked with herpes viruses and explored how they interact with their host cells. The work eventually led her to Virginia Tech, where she completed a 10-week summer internship and later returned to earn her doctorate.

At Virginia Tech she studied interactions between phages and Agrobacterium, a group of bacteria that cause tumor-like growths and prevent plants from getting sufficient nutrients and retaining water.

“If you are ever walking on campus and you see these trees that have these big, woody bulges, those tumors are likely caused by Agrobacterium,” Gonzalez said. “They are chronic infections, so you can’t really treat them.”

Gonzalez credits her parents for pushing her to pursue higher education and her mentors, Bill Davis, Mary Sanchez-Lanier, Nicola, and many others for supporting her when she wasn’t sure if she could do it.

“They were the ones believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” she said.

She said WSU’s programs for first-generation students and the McNair Scholars Program which is designed to prepare undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds for doctoral studies – helped to set her up to succeed.

“A lot of the resources I got at WSU gave me the courage to talk to my professors, and they helped put me in touch with a community of students who were also first-generation,” Gonzalez said. “It can be a little jarring at first, but I think there is a home for everyone at WSU, you just have to find it.”