Research

My research program in the ecology and evolution of plant-fungal interactions focuses on four key areas of ecological research:

  1. Plant-soil feedbacks, invasion biology, and ecological restoration – evaluating the role of mycorrhizal fungi in facilitating or inhibiting the establishment of invasive plants, particularly along successional gradients and in relation to disturbance
  2. Microbial ecology in agroecosystems – identifying key microbial functional groups that improve plant productivity, as well as soil and plant health in agroecosystems
  3. Fungal ecology and global change – examining the influence of different mycorrhizal functional groups on carbon sequestration in forest ecosystems
  4. Genetic basis of plant-fungal interactions – aimed at understanding how mycorrhizal relationships are maintained or lost over evolutionary time

Below are some of the current research projects in our Soil Microbial Ecology lab at Washington State University.

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Plant-soil feedbacks and ecological restoration: Understanding the mechanisms that both enable and promote native seedling establishment is key to improving the biodiversity and function of disturbed ecosystems. In greenhouse experiments and in a long-term field study at The Land Institute (Lawrence, KS), we have been testing the efficacy of reintroducing native soil microbes on native plant survival and growth in disturbed ecosystems. 

Plant-microbe-insect interactions: IMG_8324Inoculations with soil microbes may help to improve native prairie plant survival and growth in ecological restorations and provide increased habitat for insect pollinators. In Summer 2019, graduate student Gunner Davies is utilizing our restoration plots in KS to test the hypothesis that additions of native soil microbes will increase native plant diversity, as well as increase abundance and diversity of insect pollinators in the restoration site. This research will provide novel insights into the below ground factors that contribute to pollinator abundance and diversity in ecological restorations. We look forward to learning what he finds out!

Restoration ecology in contaminated soils: Mining activities can have widespread negative effects on the landscape, including acidification and heavy metal contamination of the soil. These soil conditions make ecological restorations of former mine sites particularly challenging. In Summer 2019, graduate student Austin Frewert is investigating whether co-amendment of biochar with locally-adapted arbuscular or ectomycorrhizal fungi will improve survival and growth of native plants in soils collected from the Formosa Superfund site (Riddle, Oregon). This work is in collaboration with Dr. Kristin Trippe, USDA. We look forward to seeing his results!

Mycorrhizal responsiveness in plants native and non-native to the Palouse: IMG_8431Invasions by non-native plants are a major cause of habitat loss and the Palouse prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. Biological invasions not only reduce biodiversity of plant communities but can also negatively impact soil microbial communities. In a series of greenhouse experiments, we are testing mycorrhizal responsiveness of plants native and invasive to the Palouse. The goal of this research is to improve understanding of some of the mechanisms that drive biological invasions and the role of soil microbes in improving native plant establishment in invaded ecosystems. This work has been funded by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust Partners In Science program and will provide valuable research training to a local high school science teacher. 

Mycorrhizal fungi in agroecosystems: Our lab was recently funded by the Washington State Grape and Wine Research Program IMG_8654to evaluate the effect of mycorrhizal inoculants on grapevine growth and nutrient uptake. To optimize the impact of mycorrhizal inoculations on wine grape production, we will be testing growth responses of a variety of wine grapes to different mycorrhizal products. This project will also provide valuable training to a Viticulture and Enology student at WSU. This work is in association with Cooperator Dr. Michelle Moyer, Viticulture Extension Specialist and Sarah Del Moro, Crop Consultant, Bleyhl Co-op.

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Fungal ecology in temperate forests: Understanding the role of mycelial production and turnover on below ground C storage is critical for predicting how forest ecosystems might respond to environmental perturbations such as climate change. In collaboration with Petra Fransson (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) and Richard Phillips (Indiana University), I have been characterizing the functional and taxonomic diversity of the mycorrhizal communities associated with different tree species in hardwood forests to better understand the role of different mycorrhizal functional groups in regulating soil C storage and release.

Genetic basis of plant-mycorrhizal interactions: Using Bt maize as a model system in my dissertation work, I began investigating potential mechanisms that regulate mycorrhizal colonization in mycorrhizal and non-mycorrhizal plants. This led to new research questions that I am pursuing at WSU aimed at understanding how mycorrhizal relationships are maintained or lost over time.

IMG_8633In Summer 2019, WSU undergraduate Javier Chavez Lara received a WSU Chancellor Summer Scholar grant to help our lab develop a new model system to evaluate mycorrhizal responsiveness across a gradient of agricultural domestication history. We look forward to learning what he finds out!