Robert R. Martin was born and raised on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin with five brothers and five sisters. As a teenager, he knew “We don’t plant alfalfa in the wet area of fields,” but no one told him the reason why this wasn’t done. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and received a B.S. degree in forestry in 1975 and a Ph.D. degree in plant pathology in 1979. He moved to Corvallis, Oregon, where he worked as a post-doctoral research associate at the USDA-ARS Horticultural Crops Research Unit (HCRU) from 1980 to 1982. There he worked on viruses infecting perennial fruit crops (collectively known as berries) under the guidance of Richard Converse. In 1982, Martin moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he took a position as a plant pathologist with Agriculture Canada to work on virus diseases of berry crops and potato. He worked there for 13 years and then returned to HCRU at Corvallis to replace his mentor, Richard Converse, who had retired. He is currently the research leader and research plant pathologist at HCRU and holds appointments as a professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology and the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program at Oregon State University.
Martin has earned a national and international reputation for excellence in the field of plant virology. He has made many important contributions to the field, especially in the area of viruses infecting berries. He is known for developing innovative approaches for characterizing viruses that previously had been intractable. These studies have had important impacts in terms of advancing our fundamental understanding of viral diversity, evolution, and taxonomy, as well as having considerable practical applications. Indeed, one the strengths of Martin’s program has been to address and solve important problems facing the berry industries. In many cases, the results of these efforts have led to new approaches for disease management, with economic benefits for berry growers in the United States and throughout the world.
Early in his career, Martin helped develop methods that facilitated the detection and characterization of berry viruses. He recognized the value of antibody-based tests such as ELISA for virus detection. He was a pioneer in the development of using double-stranded RNA as a source of viral genetic material for characterization and cloning recalcitrant viruses. Martin and his colleagues have characterized and described more than 50 viruses infecting berries, vegetables, aromatic plants, and ornamentals. He and his colleagues have described more than half of the 27 viruses known to infect strawberry and more than half of the 40 viruses known to infect caneberries or brambles. Many of the viruses that Martin characterized were recalcitrant and associated with graft-transmissible diseases of unknown etiology. For example, the diseases strawberry pallidosis, raspberry leaf mottle, and raspberry leaf spot were described in the 1950s, but it was Martin and associates who described the viruses that caused these diseases. More recently, his work discovering the etiology and disease epidemiology of scorch and shock diseases of blueberry has been a major breakthrough for blueberry production. In other cases, he characterized viruses that were present in mixed infections and elucidated the complex etiology of these diseases. For example, Martin and associates showed that crumbly fruit of red raspberry is caused by a complex of Raspberry bushy dwarf virus, Raspberry leaf mottle virus, and Raspberry latent virus, the latter being the only aphid-transmitted rhabdovirus described to date. This has changed the way that this disease is managed and saved growers millions of dollars. Martin and colleagues also were leaders in the application of transgenic plant technologies for the development of virus-resistant plants. He was among the first to utilize this technology in potato, raspberry, and strawberry. He has worked with APHIS and their counterparts in other countries to resolve issues that have led to the increased export of plants of berry crops. These are but a few examples of the remarkable body of work Martin has generated on viruses infecting berries and other crop plants.
Martin is well known for his willingness to assist colleagues in learning the techniques of virus characterization that he has pioneered over the years. Scientists from Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, and Canada have spent time working in Martin’s laboratory, learning techniques for detection and characterization of berry viruses. He also has mentored numerous students and post-doctoral fellows. Martin is equally comfortable working with growers, and he is able to effectively diagnose problems and develop management strategies. He is very effective at communicating this information to growers in clear and understandable terms. Together, these efforts have had tremendous impact and resulted in economic benefits for berry growers in the United States and throughout the world.
During his career, Martin’s achievements have been documented in more than 170 peer-reviewed journals, 35 book chapters, and many other nonrefereed and popular articles. His work has also been recognized by numerous awards, including the Gordon J. Green Award from the Canadian Phytopathological Society, the Recognition of Service Award from the North American Strawberry Growers Association, numerous Performance Awards from the USDA-ARS, and the APS Lee M. Hutchins Award.
In addition, Martin has an outstanding record of service to APS, various journals, and other professional societies and advisory committees. He has served as an associate editor for Phytopathology (2003–2006) and Plant Disease (1987–1990) and a senior editor for APS PRESS (2005–2008) and Journal of Plant Pathology (2011–present). He is chair of the National Clean Plant Network for berries and a member of the National Clean Plant Network. On the international level, he is a member of the scientific committee of the International Council of the Study of Virus and Other Graft-Transmissible Diseases of Fruit Crops and several subcommittees of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses and the International Society of Horticultural Science. He now knows why alfalfa didn’t grow in those wet areas.