Dr. T. M. Sonny Lee, Assistant Professor of Biology at Kansas State University (KSU) and plant team member working on the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS) has received a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA) award to address the impacts of increased drought frequency on plants native to the central grasslands of the Midwest. The title of his project is Linking microbiome function and microbial processes to plant genetic diversity in a foundation forage grass across the Great Plains grassland climate gradient: a multi-omics approach. Specifically, the USDA will provide over $700,000 for Lee’s research team to study how ecotype variation in Big Bluestem grass will influence the interactions between plant roots and microbes across the Great Plains.

Bluestem is a dominant perennial tall grass widespread over the central Midwest grasslands making up over 80% of its biomass. Its sustainability is heavily impacted by drought conditions. Given that drought frequency is expected to increase in the future due to climate change, maintaining this critical ecosystem requires an in-depth understanding how Bluestem responds to drought situations.

Dr. Lee’s interdisciplinary team of researchers include MAPS team members, Dr. Ari Jumpponen, Associate Professor of Biology at KSU and Dr. Maggie Wagner, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas (KU) along with Dr. Sara Baer, Director and Senior Scientist of the Kansas Biological Survey, and Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at KU; Dr. Loretta Johnson, Co-Director of the Ecological Genomics Institute and Professor of Biology at KSU; and  Dr. Adam Smith, Missouri Botanical GardenThe team will conduct both field and greenhouse experiments using a broad geographic sampling of natural grasslands across the Great Plains as well as several modeling approaches to interpret the interaction between plant host and its root-associated microbes. By examining the microbial composition and function, nutrient cycling, plant genetics, plant phenotype and plant gene expression the investigators will study how the host performance and host-associated microbes interact to maintain their productivity in stressful times. Results from this study can then be used as a tool for conservation and restoration managers to design appropriate management strategies to increase plant resiliency to drought and anticipate shifts in the plant-soil microbe relationship as climate conditions change.

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