Robert L. Gilbertson was born in Chicago, IL. He received a B.S. degree in wildlife biology in 1978 and an M.S. degree in plant pathology in 1981 from the University of Massachusetts. After serving as an extension technician in the Department of Entomology at the University of Massachusetts, he resumed his graduate education and received a Ph.D. degree in plant pathology from Colorado State University in 1985. Between 1986 and 1990, Gilbertson was a research associate and assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1990, he joined the faculty at the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California-Davis (UC Davis). Throughout his career, Gilbertson has shown an unusual ability to contribute substantially to both fundamental and applied research, and to exploit basic research results for practical ends, in both virology and seed pathology. As evidence of his accomplishments, Gilbertson was awarded the APS Syngenta Award in 1998 and was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2006. Gilbertson also is an exemplary teacher and has extensive professional activities, including service as editor-in-chief of Phytopathology from 2005 to 2008.
In the area of virology, Gilbertson is especially recognized for his ground-breaking work on the geminiviruses, a group of single-stranded DNA viruses. Although some geminiviruses can be transmitted by conventional rub-inoculation techniques, many could only be transmitted by their insect vectors. Gilbertson and colleagues demonstrated that geminivirus infections could be initiated by particle bombardment of plants with cloned viral double-stranded DNA. This discovery opened up a range of functional explorations of geminivirus genes. In collaborations with William Lucas at UC Davis, the bipartite geminivirus Bean dwarf mosaic virus (BDMV) became a model system for investigating the functions of geminivirus proteins in the trafficking of virus genomic DNA in and out of the cell nucleus and from cell to cell. Their paper, “Two proteins of a plant DNA virus coordinate nuclear and plasmodesmal transport” by Noueiry et al., which was published in Cell in 1994, has been cited 229 times. Later investigations of a monopartite geminivirus, which lacked the movement proteins of the bipartite viruses, revealed the role of multifunctional proteins, such as the capsid protein, in movement.
Gilbertson has been a pioneer in exploiting both traditional and molecular tools in the investigation of geminivirus population structure and evolution. In 1993, Gilbertson and colleagues were the first to report pseudorecombination between two bipartite gemininivirus species. In later work, the capacity of bipartite geminiviruses to form pseudorecombinants was shown to be an important measure of relatedness, augmenting sequence comparisons. This work was followed by studies revealing intermolecular recombination between geminivirus species, a phenomenon now recognized as driving the evolution of these viruses. As recognition of Gilbertson’s and Lucas’s eminence in geminivirus biology, they were invited to write a 2005 Annual Review of Phytopathology article on evolution and emergence of geminiviruses.
For many years, Gilbertson has pursued the detection and characterization of whitefly and leafhopper-transmitted geminiviruses in the United States, Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, and West Africa, using conventional methods and molecular methods. The findings from these efforts led to new approaches for mitigating the often severe economic losses these viruses cause, especially in developing countries. His efforts were acknowledged in a special award from the Minister of Agriculture of the Dominican Republic for work that allowed the Dominican Republic processing tomato industry to become reestablished after it was destroyed by the Tomato yellow leaf curl virus epiphytotic of the early 1990s. In collaboration with Douglas Maxwell of the University of Wisconsin, Gilbertson and his colleagues sequenced the virus and determined its origin. They also developed molecular tools to detect and quantify the virus in the reservoir hosts and the whitefly vector. Together with officials from the Dominican Republic Ministry of Agriculture and private industry, Gilbertson developed an integrated pest management (IPM) program that was based primarily on a host-free period. As a result of this program, the Dominican Republic’s tomato production had fully rebounded by the year 2000 and currently has higher yields than before the epiphytotic.
More recently, Gilbertson has been a very active member of the USAID IPM-Collaborative Research Support Program (IPM-CRSP) Insect-Transmitted Viruses Global Theme Project; the goal of which is to implement IPM programs for economically important insect-transmitted viruses in West Africa and Central America/the Caribbean. He has used similar and other approaches to characterize geminiviruses in vegetable crops of California. Gilbertson also has turned his skills toward fundamental characterization and control method improvement for several other viruses, including potyviruses and emerging tomato viruses.
Throughout his career, Gilbertson has also worked productively with private industry and California commodity groups to develop monitoring tools and IPM methods to effectively control seedborne diseases. Remarkably, his seed pathology projects engage the full range of disease agents and include beans, carrots, celery and lettuce and tomato among the crops. Gilbertson also has collaborated with plant breeders and geneticists on breeding for disease resistance in common bean.
Gilbertson is also an exemplary teacher who devotes much time and energy into providing students with informative lectures and meaningful laboratory exercises. He coteaches Introduction to Plant Pathology and Plant Virus Vector Interactions at the undergraduate level and Plant Bacteriology for graduate students, and often receives evaluations by students of 4.8 or 4.9 out of 5 points. He also contributes to graduate-level plant virology and to general and molecular virology courses, and to several other courses on campus. As someone who is widely respected for his breadth and depth of knowledge, he is heavily involved in mentoring students and serving on guidance committees.
Gilbertson is also active in both departmental and professional service, including a long-standing commitment to editorial service. To conclude, Gilbertson is deserving of recognition as an APS fellow for both his depth and breadth in basic and applied research in virology and seed pathology and his efforts in teaching and service.