Rodrigo P. P. Almeida was born in Piracicaba, Brazil, and received his B.Sc. degree in agronomy in 1997 from the Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, and his M.S. degree in entomology from the same institution in 1999. He then received his Ph.D. degree in environmental science, policy, and management in 2002 from the University of California-Berkeley, working under the guidance of Alexander Purcell. After serving as an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa from 2003 to 2005, he accepted a faculty position as an assistant professor at the University of California-Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management in 2006 and was advanced to tenure in 2011. In his short career, he has already established himself as a world leader in the ecology and evolution of insect-borne plant pathogens. He already has 56 publications in peer-reviewed journals and five book chapters and reviews.
While he is best known for his extensive work studying not only the fundamental biology of the plant-pathogenic bacterium Xylella fastidiosa but also that of its insect vectors and the mechanisms by which it is transmitted, he has also made important contributions to the understanding of grapevine leafroll-associated viruses as well as Banana bunchy top virus. The cross training that Almeida has received in both plant pathology and entomology is evident in the interdisciplinary approaches that he has taken toward understanding these insect-transmitted diseases. As such, his ability to simultaneously address important processes such as vector biology and behavior as well as the interaction of plant pathogens with both insect vectors and with their plant hosts has enabled him to make many important breakthroughs in the nexus between plant pathology and entomology. His work reflects his ability to make seminal contributions in both fields. For example, he has been able to model the results of his studies of insect vector feeding preferences and other behaviors to predict the likelihood of spread of the pathogen into crop plants such as grape and alfalfa. His detailed studies of the localization of Xylella fastidiosa within sharpshooter vectors coupled with transmission experiments has led to acceptance of his proposed model of the process whereby the pathogen is introduced into the xylem during insect feeding. He has made many breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of the pathogen itself. His discovery that plant-derived polymers such as pectin were necessary to induce an adhesive state in the pathogen, enabling it to be acquired and thus transmitted by sharpshooters has enabled the study of insect transfer of the pathogen in vitro for the first time. This breakthrough opens up a wide variety of studies that has enabled him to separate the effects of genetic alterations in the pathogen that affect behavior in the plant from those that directly affect insect colonization. Likewise, his studies of the distribution of the pathogen within the plant, changes in gene expression profiles within the pathogen modulated by plant and animal factors, and the illumination of novel means of disease control based on disruption of pathogen transmission all reflect his innovative application of modern molecular tools to the study of Xylella fastidiosa. His work is even more impressive when one considers the broad range of research approaches that it has exploited. His work on the population genetics of both Xylella fastidiosa as well as grapevine leafroll-associated viruses are both landmark papers in the field and show the power of modern methods of studying the genetic structure of pathogen populations on understanding processes of invasion, pathogen expansion, and local biogeography as mediated by vectors. Studies of the genetic structure of Banana bunchy top virus after its introduction into Hawaii have also become a classic story of how modern molecular tools can dissect such invasion processes and, therefore, aid in quarantines and other management schemes for introduced diseases.
Given that Almeida is only in the early stages of his career, his many seminal contributions in such a wide variety of fields indicate that he will continue to be an innovative and productive plant pathologist. Given the paucity of plant pathologists who do fundamental work on insect-transmitted diseases, the contributions of Almeida will be particularly important in advancing the control of such diseases.