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Alumni Profile: A Focus on Symbiosis

Image of Giles Oldroyd

Giles Oldroyd signing the National Academy of Sciences registry of membership. Photo courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.

In recent years, Giles Oldroyd’s contributions to plant genetics have earned him some of the highest honors in science. In April 2020, Oldroyd, who is the founding director of the Crop Science Centre at the University of Cambridge, was elected a fellow of The Royal Society. In July 2020, he was elected to the European Molecular Biology Organization. But the honor closest to his heart was his inauguration in April 2021 as an international member of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.

“Even though I’m British and excited to join The Royal Society, I feel like my science family is in the United States, because of my early training here,” says Oldroyd (PhD ’98 Plant Biology). “So it was a real honor to join the National Academy.”

Oldroyd remains grateful for the extremely welcoming personal and professional atmosphere he found at Berkeley. “Berkeley provided a supportive environment for me as an LGBT person to be open about my sexuality from an early age,” he says. “From the moment I started working in a lab, I was out. I was probably in the first generation of scientists to be able to do that.” 

Oldroyd earned his PhD in the lab of PMB professor Brian Staskawicz—who is now Director of Sustainable Agriculture at UC’s Innovative Genomics Research Institute—at an incredibly exciting time in plant genetics. “We were doing some of the first gene cloning out of plants anywhere in the world,” he says. “We cloned the first resistance genes and were getting the first insights into what allowed plants to be resistant to diseases.” 

As other scholars flooded the resistance field, Oldroyd applied his training to another plant mystery: symbiosis. His life’s work has focused on the interactions between plants and beneficial microorganisms, both bacteria and fungi, that aid in the uptake of nutrients from the environment, especially nitrogen and phosphorus. He is noted for dissecting the signaling pathways that enable these partners to recognize one another and discovering that these pathways exist not just in legumes, his model crop, but are likely used in all intracellular symbioses in plants.

Oldroyd’s goal is “to apply that knowledge to deliver something useful to society, to agriculture and the world,” he says. For the past decade, the Gates Foundation has supported Oldroyd’s work as a project leader for the international research collaboration known as Engineering the Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA). ENSA’s work optimizes and engineers the interactions between crops and microorganisms to make better use of the nutrients already present in the air and soil. Replicating this ability in other plants, such as cereals, could increase yields of critical food crops in a sustainable way. “My hope is that we can massively reduce the amount of chemical inputs into our agricultural systems through these beneficial associations,” he says.

ENSA recently secured a new five-year round from Bill and Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations, which helps accelerate crop innovations reaching and benefitting smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Leveraging those beneficial associations to increase sustainable production of crops in those regions “directly addresses some of the worst poverty on the planet,” Oldroyd says, and could potentially revolutionize smallholder farming in low- and middle-income countries worldwide.