Geza Hrazdina, pioneer of plant pigments, dies at 83

Geza Hrazdina, who advanced the fundamental understanding of the compounds that give plants their color, flavor and protection against disease and pests, died June 2 in Geneva, New York. He was 83 years old.

Hrazdina, Emeritus Professor of Food Science, has focused his research on understanding plant natural products – the chemicals created by plants to attract pollinators, protect against disease or pests, aid reproduction and perform many other tasks. . He is best known for his work on anthocyanins, natural products that give plants like grapes, apples and petunias their pigmentation, according to food science professor Gavin Sacks.

“It took a lot of chemical ingenuity at the time to identify these trace compounds,” Sacks said. “Geza performed some of the most painstaking chemical operations to isolate these compounds and identify their spectral properties, melting points and many other properties. He did not discover anthocyanins, but he helped discover the extent, diversity, and function of these and related compounds in the plant kingdom.

Hrazdina’s research has had an impact on horticulturists and, ultimately, consumers, Sacks said. Using information discovered by Hrazdina and other early anthocyanin researchers, plant breeders developed new varieties with unique coloration and improved nutrition.

“These anthocyanins have many positive health effects, and improved coloring is also important for consumer interest in fruits and vegetables: we eat with our eyes first,” Sacks said. “There are a number of new plant varieties with attractive color and good nutrition that have been introduced over the past decade, and Geza was one of those pioneers who helped the plant world get there. .”

Hrazdina also carried out early studies of related plant metabolites, including tannins – the astringent and mouth-drying compounds found in foods and beverages, including chocolate, tea, coffee and, in particular, red wine. . Later in his career, Hrazdina studied the natural causes of disease resistance and fruit ripening, with the goal of eliminating the need for chemical sprays.

He is the author of more than 80 peer-reviewed journal articles, several books, and a dozen book chapters, and his work has been cited more than 5,200 times in other peer-reviewed research. .

His expertise was recognized worldwide. He served the Phytochemical Society of North America in several capacities, including on its advisory and executive committees, and as president from 1982 to 1983. In 1993, he served as program director for the cell biology division of the National Science Foundation, and twice received an Alexander Von Humboldt Research Fellowship, in 1973 and 1982.

At Cornell, Hrazdina served as co-chair of the Cornell Genomics Initiative in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A grassroots movement led by life science researchers, the initiative worked to create a dialogue between researchers campus and to recruit a new generation of scholars who could use cutting-edge technologies like DNA sequencing to answer fundamental questions in the life sciences.

Hrazdina was born in Letenye, Hungary on March 16, 1939. His family was persecuted after the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, and he spent time in a prison camp in Yugoslavia before fleeing the country in 1958 He earned a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree. degrees from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Originally hired at Cornell as a postdoctoral research associate, Hrazdina joined the faculty in 1968 and remained at the university until his retirement in 2007.

Throughout her life, Hrazdina maintained ties and concern for her home country. In 1979 he received a scholarship from the National Academy of Sciences to work with the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the Technical University of Budapest. And he served with the Eastern Europe Program of the Cornell International Institute for Food and Agricultural Development from 1991 until his retirement. In 2001 he was elected to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, one of the highest scientific honors in Hungary.

Hrazdina is survived by his wife of 34 years, Minou Hemmat Hrazdina; his son, Geza K. Hrazdina; daughter-in-law Kate and granddaughter Katherina.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.