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Finding Success in Symbiosis

In 1998, U.K. plant biologist Giles Oldroyd (pictured left), just after receiving Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, had the foresight to reflect on where the great unanswered questions lay in plant biology. One field that struck him as having great potential was symbiosis in legumes. "It really captured my imagination," he recalls.

Just seven years later, Oldroyd, at the age of 34, has an international reputation in legume symbiosis, a tenure track position, and a research group of ten. That propensity to seek out and tackle important questions, coupled with what might be called scientific social skills--his ability to interact with other scientists, trade resources, and form symbiotic partnerships--are, he believes, keys to his success. Not unlike the legumes he studies, his success is rooted in his ability to establish connections and gather what he needs from the world around him.

A Scientist Sprouts

While still a genetics undergraduate at East Anglia University in Norwich, U.K., Oldroyd had the opportunity to spend a year at the University of California, Berkeley, where he joined plant biologist Brian Staskawicz, whom he had met while Staskawicz was on sabbatical at the plant research institute at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. After graduating, he returned to Staskawicz’s lab for his Ph.D., cloning and characterising a disease-resistance gene in tomato plants. "That started me in plant/microbe signaling. I thought it was interesting to see how two organisms learn to communicate with each other," Oldroyd recalls.

Branching Out

Fascinating as plant-disease research was, Oldroyd judged that the field was becoming too crowded and might not offer a long-term research niche. This view was supported by his supervisor and mentor. Staskawicz, says Oldroyd, "showed me that you have to think things through ... considering not just science but your career." Oldroyd took Staskawicz’s advice to heart when deciding which direction to head next. It turned out to be a career-defining decision.

After he finished his Ph.D., Oldroyd applied for postdoc positions in two fields he expected to expand rapidly: programmed cell death and symbiosis. Symbiosis in legumes held a particular fascination. The timing was right, he figured: Genetic maps and genomic libraries had just come on stream, allowing researchers to start to untangle the complex signals that mediate legume-bacterial communication.

Soon after, he secured a position in the lab of Stanford University's Sharon Long, a leading pioneer in research on plant symbiosis.There, Oldroyd worked on characterising the genes involved in mediating this legume-bacteria relationship. Bacteria and legumes--peas, for example--have a mutually beneficial relationship: The plants receive the nitrogen necessary for growth, and the bacteria obtain carbon from the plants' photosynthetic factories. Not only is it "one of the most complex symbiotic interactions in the natural world," as Oldroyd puts it, but it’s also one of the major ways of getting nitrogen into living systems.

Finding a Niche

Oldroyd had found an ideal research area on which to build his career. "I made very conscious decisions about which fields to go into," recalls Oldroyd. "In some ways, I didn’t make a huge jump from disease resistance to symbiosis. It’s all plant and microbe signaling." The difference, he says, was that "legumes lagged a little behind because there hadn’t been as much investment in it as, say, Arabidopsis. I’ve benefited from being part of a field that is moving forward very quickly."

In 2002, Oldroyd returned to the U.K. when he won a fellowship from Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). At the same time, he was offered a tenure-track position to head his own laboratory at the John Innes Centre. Building on work started in Long’s lab, his team studies how genes mediate the signaling between bacteria and legumes. They are interested in ascertaining how certain signaling molecules called Nod factors are related to the activation and recognition of calcium, an important secondary messenger in the signaling pathway.

Oldroyd hopes his research will turn out to be of more than just academically interesting; he hopes it will lead to new ways of providing non-legume crop plants with nitrogen. Currently, farmers rely heavily on nitrogen fertilisers, which pollute and require fossil fuels to produce. "Farmers won’t be able to afford to do this in forty to fifty years. If we can find another way ... that’s the Holy Grail."

Whatever it Takes

"What I really want to do is understand this biological phenomenon," says Oldroyd. "I’ll do whatever it takes."

What it has taken so far is time and persistence. Oldroyd, whose primary training is in genetics, brought himself up to speed quickly on the relevant aspects of genomics and cell biology. In order to understand the role of calcium spiking, for example, Oldroyd immersed himself in the huge body of literature on calcium signals, most of which resulted from work done in animal systems. "He synthesises information from many different fields," says Maria Harrison of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in Ithaca, New York. "And he’s creative in the way he puts things together." Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, who has known Oldroyd since he was an undergraduate, agrees: "He puts together genomics with cell biology to get at the physiology. And he puts it all together very well."

And it's not just theory he has learned. Oldroyd has also acquired expert technical skills, such as how to inject small amounts of die into living cells without killing them. According to Harrison, this is something "not a lot of people can do."

Despite his commitment and resourcefulness, Oldroyd recognises the importance of working in teams: "I can’t possibility know everything," he says. But collaboration and teamwork are valuable in other ways. It’s "really fun and exciting when I’m forced to think of something in a different way," he says. "He’s very collaborative, which is important," acknowledges Douglas Cook of the University of California, Davis. Oldroyd not only joins forces on research projects, says Cook, but he is also involved in the community’s efforts to develop a seed bank for the model legume Medicago truncatula, and he coordinates the European effort to sequence the organism's genome.

"There are two models for being successful," says Cook. "One model is to focus very intensely inward. The other is to interact broadly. Giles chose the later tack."

Melissa Mertl is a freelance writer based in London .