Torres had a distinguished career as one of Argentina’s leading biological chemists.
Héctor Norberto Torres, professor emeritus at the University of Buenos Aires and founding director of Argentina’s Institute for Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering, died on April 2 of a sudden heart attack. He was 75.
Torres, or Doc, as his students and close colleagues called him, had a distinguished career as one of Argentina’s leading biological chemists that started with his joining Nobel laureate Luis F. Leloir’s research group at the Institute of Biochemical Research, Fundación Campomar, in 1959, immediately after finishing medical school. There, Torres studied the mechanisms that regulate glycogen biosynthesis and earned a doctorate degree from the University of Buenos Aires in 1966.
Working mostly with graduate students and his lifelong collaborator and spouse, Mirtha Flawiá, in the early 1970s Torres discovered that the adenylyl cyclase-cAMP signaling system, which had recently been shown to mediate actions of peptide hormones and biogenic amines in vertebrates, also existed in the primitive fungus Neuropora crassa and proved that cAMP is a developmental cue in this organism.
After 1983, Torres focused on the molecular nature and roles of signaling pathways in the development of trypanosomes, specifically Trypanosoma cruzi, a protist that is one of the most primitive eukaryotes and is the etiologic agent of Chagas disease. Torres characterized enzymes controlling glycogen metabolism through phosphorylation/dephosphorylation mechanisms involving cyclic nucleotide phosphodiesterases, cyclic AMP and Ca/diacylglycerol stimulated protein kinase, adenylyl cyclase, nitric oxide synthase, G proteins and energy transducing systems – all possible targets of intervention to attack this parasite.
Among Torres’ later contributions are the finding that the signal by which an intermediary nonpathogenic form of T. cruzi progresses to the pathogenic form is the second messenger cAMP, generated in response to a peptide generated from globin in the hindgut of the transmitting insect; the discovery of a nitric oxide synthase in T. cruzi and the assignment of a role for nitric oxide in regulating the parasite’s motility; the discovery of phosphoarginine in T. cruzi; and the finding that the biosynthetic enzyme arginine kinase is evolutionarily related to arthropod arginine kinase, suggesting horizontal gene transfer.
More recently, Torres’ group cloned and characterized a T. cruzi SR-like protein and proved that it is the functional orthologue of a classic mammalian mRNA splicing factor. This proved that T. cruzi has the same machinery for splicing RNA as higher eukaryotes.
Torres remained scientifically active until the end. Death found him working on mechanisms that control osmoregulation in T. cruzi epimastigotes, on the regulation of poly (ADP-ribose) metabolism as it affects the DNA damage-response and cell death pathways, and on manipulating T. cruzi’s redox equilibrium to affect detoxification and pro-drug transformation, thus connecting basic research results to a possible solution for a major public health problem in his country.
Torres was a stalwart of Argentine science. Except for a short time in the U.S. as a Guggenheim Fellow, he worked exclusively in his home country, where he assumed multiple leadership roles. Torres served on the executive councils of both the University of Buenos Aires and the Argentine National Research Council. In 1983, under the auspices of Leloir’s Institute and the Argentine Research Council, he founded South America’s first Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering. As INGEBI’s director, Torres fostered the development of young graduate students into mature scientists in an atmosphere of political freedom.
After 1985, in a newly democratized nation after twenty years of political oppression, Torres became dean of the University of Buenos Aires School of Sciences (1988 – 1990). In his role as dean, he is credited with having greatly diminished the wounds caused by the 1966 military intervention in academic affairs that all but destroyed that school’s scientific standing and prevented academic freedom under its roof.
Torres and his collaborators at INGEBI successfully mentored more than 138 graduate students and organized numerous advanced graduate courses with faculty members drawn from around the world, including the U.S. and Europe. INGEBI, which Torres directed until 2009, is home to 35 independent investigators, including Pew Latin American Fellows and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators, attesting to the high scientific standard Torres was able to attain for the research institute.
Deservedly, Héctor Torres was well recognized by his peers and won honors and awards. He was a member of the Argentine National Academies of Science (1998) and Medicine (2005) and corresponding member of the Brazilian (1999) and Chilean (2002) Academies of Science. Among his awards were the Premio Odol in Biology (1969), the Konex Platinum Award in Genetics (1993), the Luis F. Leoir Award in Chemistry (1996), the Bunge y Born Award in Molecular Biology (2000) and the J.J. Kyle Award of the Argentine Chemical Society (2005).
On a personal note, between 1964 and 1967, I was the Doc’s first graduate student. I'll always remember when I first met him in his laboratory at the Fundación Campomar as a prospective graduate student with a “research plan” in hand, he said ”Here, we do not speculate, we pipet,” thus seeding my research career as an experimentalist. I am forever thankfulI am forever thankful to him for infusing in me enthusiasm for researching the wonders that make us living beings.
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Lutz Birnbaumer (firstname.lastname@example.org) heads the transmembrane signaling group within the laboratory of neurobiology at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.