6th Annual Symposium
November 14 - 16, 2008
in Kansas City
Click here for details!



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Functional Genomic Approaches To Study Organismal Response To Global Environmental Change

Introduction:  Genes in Ecology and Ecology in Genes. 

Understanding and predicting the responses of individual organisms, communities, and ecosystems to environmental change is one of the great challenges for biology in the 21st century (National Science Board, 2000; Vitousek, 1997; Lubchenco, 1998).  We propose to link responses of living systems to environmental change at the genetic level.  We will answer the following questions: “What is the genetic basis for ecological responses to the environment?  What are the genetic and regulatory mechanisms involved in organismal responses to environmental changes?  What is the ecological context necessary to understand gene expression?

Most environmental change studies span only one or two ecological levels (e.g. communities, and ecosystems), and thus are focused on the top half of the conceptual framework (link to conceptual model).  But, organismal response to the environment depends on genetic makeup and interaction of genes with environment.  Much is known about the roles of these processes in development and physiology.  However, little is known about how the environment affects organisms at the level of expression of individual genes. According to a recent report, “The ability to under-stand how an organism responds at the level of the whole genome will open up new areas of analyses.” (National Science Board, 2000).  With the completion of many genome sequences, we are poised to assess gene function and interactions in response to environmental cues.

Existing Kansas Strengths in Ecology and Genetics. 

Much of Kansas’ ecology research has been centered at Konza Prairie Biological Station, a nearly 30-year-old, internationally acclaimed, long-term ecological research (LTER) program (Knapp et al.,1998). We intend to leverage our strong ecology program and the Konza Prairie research platform to take advantage of new research opportunities at the interface of genetics and ecology. In addition, the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center at KU have a long tradition of excellence in addressing questions of biodiversity and evolutionary ecology.

Both KU and KSU have a new emphasis on developmental genetics and genomics. Faculty at both institutions have developed new curricula (e.g., program in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) at KSU, and Molecular Biosciences at KU.  Having established successful research programs, many faculty are ready to embark on new questions at the interface of genetics and ecology and to increase our competitiveness for larger-scale, cross disciplinary external awards.

Functional genomics.  

Environmental effects on organisms are mediated by regulation of certain environmentally sensitive genes and processes, e.g. those involved in heat shock (Feder and Krebs, 1998; Feder, 1999) nutrient response (Zhang and Forde, 1998), plant defense (Glazebrook, 2001), disease resistance (Stahl et al., 1999; Bergelson et al., 2001), and N fixation (Zehr et al., 1998).  Organismal responses to these effects are mediated through changes in gene expression, which influence the behavior of organisms, and thus impact the environment.  Thus, there is a reciprocal interaction of genes and the environment

We will use functional genomics in “model” organisms (i.e., those with well-developed genetics and sequenced genomes) such as Arabidopsis thaliana, Caenorhabditis elegans and Drosophila melanogaster to understand the interactions of genes and environmentSince genes and regulatory pathways are highly conserved among animals and plants, the knowledge acquired from model organisms is applicable to native organisms in field settings (C. elegans Sequencing Consortium, 1998; Arabidposis Sequencing Consortium, 2000).

Environmental change.  

The Great Plains biota and ecosystems have evolved with climatic variability (Axelrod, 1985; Hayden, 1998) and nitrogen deficiency (Seastedt et al., 1991; Blair, 1997). Environmental change predictions for the Great Plains include increased temporal variability in rainfall (larger storm events and longer intervening dry periods) (Groisman et al.,1999; Easterling et al., 2000), increased nitrogen availability (Vitousek, 1997) and increased temperature (Gregory, et al., 1997; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2001).

We will implement projects (link to research projects) that meld the disciplines of genetics and ecology, many of which take advantage of model organisms.  Our goal is to identify major genes and pathways directly involved in the organismal response to a changing environment.  We will focus on aspects of global change most relevant to grasslands in Kansas: the amount and timing of precipitation, increased nitrogen (N) availability, and changes in temperature.  We will use functional genomics to study environmentally sensitive genes involved in plant, animal, and microorganism responses in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. We predict that changes in these drivers will fundamentally alter living systems in Kansas with effects cascading from ecosystems to genes and vice versa.  Konza Prairie’s research platform provides unparalleled opportunities because these environmental drivers are already being manipulated.


Arabidopsis Sequencing Consortium 2000. Analysis of the genome sequence of the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Nature 408, 796-815.

Axelrod, D.I.  1985.  Rise of the grassland biome.  The Botanical Review 51:163-201.

Bergelson, J. and Kreitman, M., Stahl, E. and Tian, D. Evolutionary dynamics of R-genes. Science. 292: 2281-2285.

Blair, J.M. 1997. Fire, N availability and plant response in grasslands: A test of the transient maxima hypothesis. Ecology 78:2539-2368.

C. elegans Sequencing Consortium. 1998. Genome sequence of the nematode C. elegans: a platform for investigating biology. Science 282, 2012-2018.

Easterling, D.R., G.A. Meehl, C. Parmesan, S.A. Changnon, T.R. Karl and L.O. Mearns.  2000. Climate extremes: observations, modeling, and impacts. Science 289: 2068-2074.

Feder, M. 1999. Engineering candidate genes in studies of adaptation: the heat shock protein HSp in Drosophila melanogaster. American Naturalist 154: S55-S66.

Feder, M. and Krebs, R. 1998. Natural and genetic engineering of the heat shock protein Hsp70 in Drosophila melangoaster: consequences for thermotolerance. American Zoologist 38: 503-517.

Glazebrook. J. 2001. Genes controlling expression of defense responses in Arabidopsis-2001 status. Curr. Opin. Plant Biol. 4: 305-308.

Gregory, J.M., J.F.B. Mitchell and A.J. Brady.  1997.  Summer drought in northern mid-latitudes in a time-dependent CO2 climate experiment.  Journal of Climate 10:662-686.

Groisman, P. Y., T.R. Karl, D.A. Easterling, R.W. Knight, P.F. Jamason, K.J. Hennessy, R. Suppiah, C.M. Page, J. Wibig, K. Fortuniak, V.N. Razuvaev, A. Douglas, E. Forland, and P. Zhai. 1999. Changes in the probability of heavy precipitation: important indicators of climatic change. Climatic Change 42: 243-283.

Hayden, B.  1998.  Regional climate and the distribution of tallgrass prairie. In Grassland Dynamics: Long-Term Ecological Research in Tallgrass Prairie (A.K. Knapp, J.M. Briggs, D.C. Hartnett and S.C. Collins, eds.), Oxford University Press, New York.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2001. Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report, Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Knapp, A.K., J.M. Briggs, D.C. Hartnett, and S.L. Collins, editors. 1998. Grassland Dynamics: Long-Term Ecological Research in Tallgrass Prairie. Oxford University Press. New York, NY.

Lubchenco, J. 1998. Entering the century of the environment: a new social contract for science. Science 279:491-497.

National Science Board. 2000. Environmental Science and Technology for 21st Century: The Role of the National Science Foundation. NSB 00-22.

Seastedt, T.R., J.M. Briggs and D.J. Gibson. 1991. Controls of nitrogen limitation in tallgrass prairie.  Oecologia 87:72-79.

Stahl, E., Dwyer, G., Mauricio, R., Kretiman, M. and Bergelosn, J. 1999 Dynamics of disease resistance polymorphism at the Rpm1 locus of Arabidopsis. Nature 400:667-671.

Vitousek, P.M., et al. 1997b. Human alteration of the global nitrogen cycle: Causes and consequences. Ecological Applic. 7:737-750.

Vitousek, P.M., H.A. Mooney, J. Lubchenco and J.M. Melillo. 1997a. Human domination of the Earth’s ecosystems.  Science 277:494-499.

Zehr, J.P, M.T. Mellon and S. Zani. 1998. New nitrogen-fixing microorganisms detected in oligotrophic oceans by amplification of nitrogenase (NifH) genes. Applied and Env. Microbiol. 64(9): 3444-50.

Zhang, H., and Forde, B.G. 1998. An Arabidopsis MADS box gene that controls nutrient-induced changes in root architecture. Science 279, 407-409.

6th Annual Symposium
November 14 - 16, 2008
in Kansas City
Click here for details!
Ecological Genomics Institute Directors:   
   Loretta Johnson
   KSU Division of Biology
   Voice: (785) 532-6921
   E-mail: johnson@ksu.edu
   Web: http://www.ksu.edu/johnsonlab
Michael Herman
KSU Division of Biology
Voice: (785) 532-6741
E-mail: mherman@ksu.edu
Web:  http://www.ksu.edu/hermanlab
Genes in Ecology, Ecology in Genes Symposium
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