Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory

Research Findings

The early evolution of microorganisms altered the chemistry of the earth, and strongly influenced the evolution of all other organisms.  Despite the highly visible impact of humans on the earth system, we continue to live in a world that is strongly controlled by the activities of the unseen majority.  Microbes are critical to the cycling of elements, and affect human health through their role in our food supply to the direct effects of the human microbiome.  We seek to understand how microbial communities respond to environmental change, and how those responses affect critical functions that drive biogeochemical processes and affect the systems and services that humans depend on.

 

We study the physiological, evolutionary, and community-level mechanisms that allow microbial communities to respond to environmental change. For example, we developed techniques to characterize the function of individual taxa within complex communities using molecular techniques to determine their growth response to their abiotic environment.  Our research has helped to elucidate how microbial communities respond to environmental change, and why this matters for ecosystem function. Examples of our contributions include:

 

  • An improved understanding of the ecology of extracellular enzymes involved in decomposition
  • Novel applications of molecular tools to understand microbial processes,
  • New insights into the physiology of microbes in Arctic soils and permafrost and the vulnerability of permafrost soil carbon to thawing
  • Evidence for microbial adaptation to climate change
  • A framework for predicting the consequences of microbial adaptation for ecosystem responses to climate change

 

Our current research spans from semi-arid grasslands to croplands to Arctic tundra.  We are also examining approaches to improve crop performance by identifying and managing for rhizosphere microbiomes that enhance drought tolerance, increase pathogen resistance, and reduce fertilizer requirements.  In the realm of human health, we are examining how diet affects the composition and functioning of the gut microbiome in a canine model, in collaboration with Dr. Elizabeth Ryan.