Sometimes looking at small things helps answer big questions.
The challenges of feeding a growing population while minimizing environmental problems, for instance, could be addressed by advancing understanding of interactions between groups of tiny microorganisms.
Two Kansas State University distinguished professors will lead an interdisciplinary university team collaborating with four other Kansas universities on a new $20 million project funded by the National Science Foundation to investigate how these microbiomes of aquatic habitats, plants and soils — known as MAPS — can enhance agricultural productivity, mitigate environmental problems and conserve native grasslands.
The Kansas State University group will receive $2.65 million of the total award. Walter Dodds, university distinguished professor of biology, and Chuck Rice, university distinguished professor of agronomy, are the university’s project leaders. According to Dodds, advances in genomic sequencing are driving advances in the emerging field of microbiome science.
“We’re at a point now where you can take a sample of just about anything and sequence what’s in the soil or water,” Dodds said. “Up until now we haven’t been able to tell what the microorganisms are.”
One area the Kansas State University group will investigate is how microbes associated with water quality differ in cropland and natural grassland, and how those microbes wash into water and, for example, make it more susceptible or resistant to harmful cyanobacteria blooms that can make people sick. Another area of inquiry will be how the precipitation gradient across the state affects the soil microbiome, how agriculture affects the soil microbiome, and how innovative practices in agriculture can help sustain or improve soil health through the microbiome.
“The unique approach is that we’re looking in-depth at microbes associated with the plants, the soil they’re in and water, and how they interact with each other across those habitats,” Dodds said.
The microbiome is a hot topic, and Rice said the project places Kansas at the forefront of research efforts. Many efforts are looking at one MAPS component instead of considering all three.
“The public is familiar with the gut microbiome and the human microbiome,” Rice said. “By adopting a One Health approach and understanding the microbiome from soil to plant, animal and human microbiomes, we hope we can increase awareness and understanding of the importance of those microbiomes to the environment.”
Joining Dodds and Rice on the Kansas State University are Lydia Zeglin, assistant professor of biology; Ari Jumpponen, professor of biology; Thomas Platt, assistant professor of biology; Mathew Kirk, assistant professor of geology; Sanzhen Liu, assistant professor of plant pathology; and Jesse Nippert, associate professor of biology.
The work is funded through the National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, which aims to build research and development capacity. The award will be administered by the University of Kansas and includes research partners from Wichita State University, Fort Hays State University and Haskell Indian Nations University. The award is one of five announced earlier this week to bolster science and engineering academic research infrastructure, education and workforce development in Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Wyoming. Funding for the Kansas State University project will support graduate education and outreach in addition to faculty and equipment.
“The Kansas NSF EPSCoR Track 1 award supports important research and includes funding to help establish early career faculty members,” said Beth Montelone, senior associate vice president for research at Kansas State University.
“The MAPS project serves as a great model of the strengths resulting when faculty from different disciplines and institutions work together in interdisciplinary, collaborative teams to synergize their individual expertise,” Montelone said.
Story by: Sarah Caldwell Hancock / Kansas State University
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