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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

University of Puget Sound student studies impact of soil microbial communities on native Kansas grasses

Ben Papadopoulos (left); and Ben holding a snake 
during an REU fieldtrip to the KU Field Station
     Ben Papadopoulos is a biology major and math minor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. He first became interested in soil-plant relationships and organisms, like arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, when they were mentioned in some of his core biology classes. Because he enjoys opportunities to engage in science projects, when he heard about the chance to “dig into” soil-plant microbe relationships as part of the department Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB): Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Kansas (KU), he had to apply. Ben worked with Dr. James Bever, Distinguished Foundation Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Senior Scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey, and Lead Investigator on the Kansas NSF EPSCoR OIA-1656006 RII Track-1: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS) Plant Team, to develop his research project titled: The influence of historic precipitation regimes & land-use history on soil microbial mediated plant drought tolerance. The focus of Ben's research was to determine “whether soil microbial communities from historically dry climates enhance drought response in plants more than microbes from wet climates, and how differing land uses alters those relationships.” 
Kansas grass specimens inoculated with 
various whole soil microbial communities 
     Ben further explained his research project this way: “Climate change threatens stability of important human land use needs by decreasing the frequency of precipitation events. Given the implication that drought might have for plant productivity and diversity, it is important to understand the impact of climate change and land use on future natural and agroecosystems. Soil microbial communities play a pivotal role in mediating key ecosystem processes and driving plant productivity and diversity. Agricultural practices alter microbial communities, reducing the ability of agricultural soils to mitigate disturbances which are exacerbated under altered precipitation regimes. Understanding how undisturbed microbial communities mediate drought stress may be key to securing future food production. We used the precipitation gradient of Kansas, USA and systems varying in historical land use as a proxy for understanding how microbial communities confer drought stress in plants. We examined 1) how microbes across different precipitation and land use histories influence plant growth response; 2) the ways in which microbes from low precipitation gradients mitigate drought stress in plants; and 3) how land use history may alter this interaction. To examine these questions, we tested three species of grasses from native, resorted and agricultural systems inoculated with whole soil microbial communities from different historic precipitation and land use conditions in a full factorial design. Plants were measured for growth over time and compared across groups. We also collected fungal hyphal density for all inoculation types, indicating a general trend of increasing density with decreasing disturbance. This information will help shape productive land management strategies in a changed world.” The findings of his research revealed “that the agricultural plant, sorghum, showed different reactions to the various soils after only 3 weeks of growth where the other species did not, and that little bluestem does much better in live soils versus our sterile control.” Through this summer's research experience, Ben said he learned more about how to plan, start, and write a research project, especially as adjustments needed to be made. Plus, he added, “I also learned more about plant diversity, grasses, mechanisms of drought response and microbes!”
     Ben returns to the University of Puget Sound as a senior this fall.  Originally, Ben is from Denver, CO, and he says Tacoma WA is one of his favorite places to live. In addition to participating in this summer's research program, Ben has completed an Ecology study abroad program in Costa Rica, is a member of the Phi Sigma biological honor society, and is a Teaching Assistant. As for Ben's co-curricular involvement, he is a member of the varsity crew team, a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Washington Gamma chapter, and serves on a university faculty-student committee. Currently, Ben is researching PhD programs as well as specialized masters programs with the hope of pursuing a future career in research.

Workforce Development, Education and Outreach funding for the Summer MAPS REU program is provided by the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006 titled: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas.  The grant's workforce development and educational objectives are designed to enhance STEM education in Kansas by supporting activities that will lead to an expanded STEM workforce or prepare a new generation for STEM careers in the areas of aquatic, plant and soil microbiome environments and ecological systems.