Soil Biology Laboratory
Department of Biological Sciences, Kent State University
Untamed microorganisms grow in soil by the billions per handful. They interact closely with plants and carry out an array of biogeochemical processes, with consequences for water quality, atmospheric change, and plant conservation. And yet, the diversity and assembly of these microbial communities remains a mystery. Most problems in community ecology can be reduced to two fundamental questions that apply to all organisms and environments:
How does community composition affect ecosystem processes?
What mechanisms govern the distribution of organisms (populations, species, communities) in space and time?
To answer these questions, we test ecological theories that integrate local and regional processes, and deal explicitly with interactions between the organism niche and the environment. We perform both manipulative experiments and detailed spatial analyses of communities and soil properties in the field, combining a variety of approaches (i.e., ecology, microbiology, molecular biology, soil science, multivariate spatial statistics, plant biology, evolutionary biology).
Microbial communities represent unique opportunities and challenges in testing
ecological theory. Microbes can be difficult to identify and characterize,
but genomic information about microorganisms is rapidly accumulating, raising
the prospect of enriching ecology with modern molecular and bioinformatic
methods. These methods have already revealed unanticipated diversity and
unexplored, but widespread, microbial lineages present in soils. Our
challenge now is to determine how these organisms become distributed in the
environment, and what their role is in creating stable ecosystems.
Tree roots present similar challenges, with trait variation among species often cryptic and hidden belowground. However, roots play a key role in soil carbon sequestration and maintenance of biodiversity. Combining molecular methods with
other approaches now raises the prospect of revealing how, in natural, diverse forests, root traits vary and affect soil biogeochemical cycles.
Examples of ecosystem processes we study include:
recycling of nutrients and stabilization of soil organic matter through decomposition of leaves and roots
plant nutrient uptake mediated by mycorrhizal fungi
production and consumption of methane, an important greenhouse gas.
Mui Clark was awarded a 2013 travel grant from the NSF-funded Fungal Environmental Sampling and Informatics Network.
Matt Gacura and Dean Horton were both awarded 2013 Art and Margaret Herrick Ecology Research Grants.
Newly Accepted Papers:
The ecotone-decoupling hypothesis is introduced in our new paper in Ecological Monographs, where we document a breakdown of the correlation between tree community composition and soil properties near ecotones.
Plant-soil feedback is shown to control plant population size of a species within its native range in our new paper in Oecologia.
Oscar Valverde-Barrantes manuscript on the species-specific distribution of root traits in a natural, diverse forest has been accepted at Journal of Ecology! Root traits are structured more by the assemblage of species present than soil conditions.
Research of Oscar Valverde-Barrantes was recently highlighted in the Holden Arboretum Research News Publication.
Eddie Campana was awarded the Mycology Section Student Travel Award to the 2012 Botanical Society of America conference.
Larry Feinstein's manuscript on a taxa-area relationship in fungi was accepted at Environmental Microbiology.
Oscar Valverde-Barrantes was awarded the 2012/2013 University Fellowship of Kent State University.
Suhana Chattopadhyay was awarded the Soil Ecology Section's Best Student Poster Presentation at the 2011 Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting in Austin, TX.
Larry Feinstein (Ph.D. candidate) was awarded the 2010/2011 University Fellowship of Kent State University.
Oscar Valverde-Barrantes (Ph.D. candidate) was awarded a Soil Ecology Section Travel Grant to the 2010 Ecological Society of America meeting. Oscar was also awarded a 2010 Art and Margaret Herrick Aquatic Ecology Research Facility Student Research Grant.
Devinda Hiripitayage was given the 2010 Allan A. Ichida Undergraduate Research Award from the Ohio Branch of the American Society for Microbiology. He joined the Blackwood lab in Fall 2010.
Rhodotus palmatus mushrooms found during research trip in Michigan, 8/2011.
Department of Biological Sciences, Kent State University, 217 Cunningham Hall, Kent OH 44242