March 21, 2019, by Lexi Earl

Meet the Beacon: Dr Gabriel Castrillo

Gabriel Castrillo is a Nottingham Research Fellow in Plant Microbiome, and a member of the Future Food Beacon of Excellence. Gabriel’s research is focused on understanding how plants and microbes interact, in the context of nutrition. He examines how microbes help plants cope with nutritional deficiencies, and how the plant impacts the structure of the microbiome of the root, and the leaf. Gabriel joins UoN from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He published his first Nature paper in 2017.

In this interview, Gabriel talks to Lexi Earl about his research work, and what drew him to the University of Nottingham.

Tell me about your research?

My work is mainly focused on the study of how plants and microbes interact. I am interested in doing that in the context of nutrition. I want to understand how microbes help the plant to cope with nutritional deficiencies and to understand how the plant controls the structure and function of its microbiome.

How did you get involved in this research?

I did my PhD working in phosphate starvation, in Spain. When I finished, I realised that phosphate was intimately related with arsenate, so I started working with arsenate signaling in plants in my first postdoc. After I finished that, I realised there was another layer that I was not considering, the contribution of microbes. I moved to the USA to complete this research at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I went from phosphate starvation in sterile conditions, to arsenate, and then I started researching the interaction of microbes and plants in the context of phosphate starvation. I become more and more interested in studying the entire plant ionome, all elements at the same time. I knew David Salt was working on this at the University of Nottingham, and I found this NRF position at the same time. Now I have the possibility to cover how the microbes not only affect phosphate or arsenate, but all the elements at the same time. I find this idea really fascinating, which I why I decided to join the team here.

How does being at UoN and being part of Future Food help you achieve your goals?

It is exciting because you get to interact with so many people from different disciplines. The level of excellence is very high, so the environment, my mentors, pushes me to achieve new levels of excellence. There is a culture of collaboration, of finding novel and exciting topics for proposals and grant applications, generating preliminary data, talking to visitors. The science here is very dynamic and very good so it is a challenging environment to work in.

How does your research affect ordinary people?

At the moment I am working in fundamental Biology so I want to answer fundamental questions. I want to understand the system, answer theoretical questions. But these theoretical questions can be translated to crop systems. At that point, they will impact on ordinary people. These fundamental questions are essentially related to plant nutrition and food. It is important. It is the basis for the future of crops and agriculture. Specifically, I find the microbiome field very exciting. There is a lot of potential. It is growing incredibly fast but it is still in its infancy so we need to answer a lot of fundamental questions in order to understand the system.

How do you explain your research to ordinary people?

All living organisms, including humans, are colonized by, and cohabit with, microbes. My work is trying to understand how the microbes that live together with the plant impact or affect the development of the plant. How do the microbes that live in the root and in the leaf affect the accumulation of nutrients. How important are the microbes for nutrient accumulation? How do microbes help the plant to cope with nutrient deficiency. How do microbes change the morphology of the root and leaf in order to make the plants better.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

I push myself a lot. I want to be competitive all the time. I want to be a reference in the field. I know that there are a lot of people working in defense and microbiome, but I don’t know so many people working in nutrition and microbiome, so I want to explore this field. I want to build a lab, I want to generate knowledge, and I want to be a reference in this field.

What is your greatest career moment so far?

I have two essentially. The first was when I finished my PhD. I think the PhD is an important moment for all scientists, there is before and then after the PhD. My second moment was when I published my Nature paper. That was something I really wanted to do. I dreamt about that moment for so many years. I worked really hard for that so to finally accomplish that was amazing.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing in the near future?

I am the type of person who has very clear objectives and I work year by year. I have two objectives. One is to publish my work in a high-impact journal. The second is to obtain a permanent position. There are many things you need to accomplish to get that – a lot of proposals, PhD students, postdocs. All of the things are linked.

What does a typical day look like?

My days are super busy. Being busy is not always a good thing, you need to time to stop and think about what I am doing, the goals I want to achieve, read papers related to what I am doing. I have lab responsibilities and work, I am writing grant applications, attending meetings. It is very busy!

What advice do you have for young scientists?

Science is not about intelligence. It is about discipline. It is having the courage and the strength to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and try again and again, and push and push. At a certain level, everyone is the same. Everyone is very intelligent. What makes the difference is the discipline. To work and work and work, try again and again. That is what differentiates one scientist from another. Successful people are really hard workers, obsessive. You also need to be intelligent of course, but also very creative. But you must have discipline.

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