Relentless scientific sleuth tracking oak-killing microbe still finds time to enjoy art, opera, wine and cooking
Cultured beyond the lab
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
Berkeley -- Matteo Garbelotto slid his chair past the microscopes, test tubes and beakers and reached for the most crucial piece of equipment on the dusty shelves of his windowless laboratory.
His cell phone.
It was yet another call from a researcher relating something or other about microscopic sporangia and their inscrutable zoospores. Scientific jabber to most, but to Garbelotto it was yet another piece of evidence in a fascinating mystery.
For a year now, the 36-year-old forest pathologist at the University of California at Berkeley has been hot on the trail of a microbial desperado that is ravaging California's oak trees and a growing list of other species.
Although he enjoys being a modern-day sleuth, he is more than just a tree pathologist with a gift for gab. Garbelotto sees the forest as a dynamic cultural force in the world, as important to humanity as art, music and poetry.
"The forest, to most people, is pretty static, like a screen saver," Garbelotto said. "To me, looking into a microscope, it is like the World Wide Web. There are so many links, you can overdose."
He is a man who knows how to enjoy the material, whether it be a scientific discovery, a sip of fine wine or an aria at the opera. A native of Venice, Italy, who spent much of his childhood exploring the Alps, Garbelotto has always lived in two worlds. He is both a nature lover and metropolitan guy. A man who loves his native country but spends most of his time elsewhere. He is a gay man in an overwhelmingly straight profession.
"He's an interesting, colorful character who is very open and flamboyant," said Gregory Gilbert, a former Berkeley professor who is now with the UC Santa Cruz environmental studies department. "He combines an absolute top-notch scientific ability with an incredible ability to work with people."
His job is a taxing one, involving long days in front of a microscope tracking the deadly pathogen, which can change its genetic makeup and produce offspring without even having sex.
Garbelotto attributes much of his success to his collaboration with UC Davis plant pathologist David Rizzo. The two men have worked together since last summer, with Rizzo doing much of the field research and Garbelotto doing the laboratory work.
"Matteo is a much more outgoing person than I am," said Rizzo, who describes himself as a small-town family man. "Scientists are usually kind of dull, but he gets really excited about his work. He will call me at home late on a Friday night to tell me about a discovery."
Nobody knew what to expect when Garbelotto was hired last year as a forest pathologist and adjunct professor for the UC Cooperative Extension. His dogged determination to find the cause of the oak disease quickly attracted attention,
both from the public and from the UC bureaucracy.
His straightforward, unconventional style raised some eyebrows, and a few hackles, among the more traditional faculty members, according to various sources. A succession of breakthrough discoveries, however, has since gained him and Rizzo great praise in the scientific community.
Using the latest in molecular technology, the two men first identified a previously unknown species of phytophthoria -- a funguslike organism closely related to brown algae -- as the culprit. Then they established a link between that organism and another disease killing Port Orford cedar trees in the Pacific Northwest.
Next, they tracked the spread of the disease to commercial rhododendrons in Europe and in the Bay Area.
Garbelotto even found a compound, phosphonate, that helps trees fight off the disease. He has since documented the spread of sudden oak death in bay and madrone trees, huckleberries and other native plants.
"He is really pushing the frontier," Gilbert said. "He has taken the best of modern molecular technology and biology and applied them to real problems related to tree diseases. He's definitely one of the leaders in the country in new forest pathology."
Garbelotto's understanding of the hidden microbial world of the forest sprang up through the rich soil of his youth.
His mother was from an old middle-class Venetian family and his father came from one of the richest families in northern Italy. His mother, an actress, met his father in Treviso, where both families went through harrowing yet different experiences during World War II.
Garbelotto's grandmother, who died soon after his mother was born, was Jewish. Because of that, her family was forced to hide on a farm near Treviso when the Nazis occupied Italy. While they were hiding, the Gestapo was expropriating the stately home that his father had grown up in.
His artist mother and rich father met and fell in love, which did not sit well with Garbelotto's grandmother. She forbade her son from marrying a woman so far beneath him -- so the two eloped. His father borrowed a car, and they drove to a village at the foot of the Alps, where they got married.
"My grandmother never spoke to him again," Garbelotto said, "and never wanted to meet me."
The couple eventually bought a summer home in the Alps, where Garbelotto spent much of his youth.
"That really affected my future, because the village is very small and nestled in a valley between forests of spruce and fir," he said. "The wood from the forests was used by Antonio Stradivari to make violins. . . . The beauty of the place is striking."
Garbelotto pursued his passion, receiving a master's degree in forestry from the University of Padua in 1990. He then got a Fulbright scholarship to UC Berkeley. While working on his master's degree in plant pathology in 1993, he organized a scientific expedition to the Italian Alps, collecting specimens from locations he knew from his childhood.
Garbelotto has been teaching molecular cell biology at UC Berkeley since 1995 and has been a research associate since 1997. He has published numerous articles in scientific journals on fungus, root disease, hybridization, gene flow and other genetic puzzles. He is still in charge of a forest management research project in the Alps.
But Garbelotto does not spend all his time in the realm of the fungi. Life's rich diversity extends to his personal life.
A fine cook, he has been known to whip up a dish or two when visiting the family-owned restaurant in Venice. He has season tickets to the opera and is currently organizing an art show for his cousin, an up-and-coming painter from Brazil.
Although Garbelotto owns a 15th century house in Venice that is "under water all the time," he misses the diversity of San Francisco when he leaves. He fell in love with San Francisco after reading Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," and he now lives in an old Victorian with a garden in Hayes Valley.
His work, he said, is a reflection of his life -- diverse, passionate, devoted to the betterment of society.
"Most people think culture means classical music and being well read but have a hard time realizing that part of culture is their relationship to nature and the environment," Garbelotto said. "I see my work as a way to train people about a different, but equally important, aspect of culture."
Garbelotto reflected for a moment, then snapped back to the reality of being a 21st century scientist. His cell phone was ringing again.
E-mail Peter Fimrite at email@example.com.