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K-State Today

September 2, 2020

Biology's Lee earns USDA award to understand impact of drought on interaction between plant host, microbiome

Submitted by Division of Biology

To address the challenge for plant growth in the increase of drought frequency in the central grasslands of the Midwest, the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture program awarded Kansas State University $737,608 to establish an ambitious research program to understand how ecotype variation in Andropogon gerardii, Big Bluestem, will affect the interactions between plant roots and microbes across the Great Plains.

The project, "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," is led by Sonny Lee from the Division of Biology at Kansas State University, who will work with Loretta Johnson and Ari Jumpponen, Division of Biology; Maggie Wagner and Sara Baer, University of Kansas; and Adam Smith, Missouri Botanical Garden. The team will use a set of complementary field and greenhouse experiments, broad geographic sampling of natural grasslands across the Great Plains, and several modeling approaches. The interdisciplinary team aims to elucidate 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. This study will enable the investigators to find out how the host performance and host-associated microbes interact to maintain productivity in stressful times.

The central grasslands of the Midwest, which contribute $10 billion in agricultural output annually to Kansas alone, are dominated by the perennial grass Andropogon gerardii. This foundational grass species comprises up to 80% of grassland biomass and is heavily impacted by drought. Given that drought frequency is expected to increase, managing for resiliency in this critical ecosystem requires understanding how A. gerardii responds to drought. Designing appropriate management strategies to increase resiliency to drought will require understanding underlying ecotypic variation in A. gerardii, how this relates to soil microbial communities and soil processes, and the degree of match between host and soil microbes. It will also require anticipating shifts in the plant-soil microbe relationship as conditions change.

This research will help characterize A. gerardii ecotype responses to future changing climates and will identify if local adaptation to climate and the rhizobiome limits this species' ability to adjust to changing climate, or if populations have potential to migrate — or be restored — to match future climate conditions. Ultimately, results from this study will inform conservation and restoration managers to better identify the optimal regional ecotypes and soil that optimizes productivity and ecosystem processes under different climate scenarios. 

Lee joined K-State's Division of Biology in August 2019. His lab uses a combination of genomics enabled technologies — metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, metabolomics — to inventory microbial genes, functions and expressions. Combining with chemical and processes data, his lab creates a profile of microbial functions that contribute to critical host-microbes-environment interaction. They validate these multi-omic enabled hypotheses with both laboratory and field manipulations, as well as large-scale surveys. Lee's lab works with various model systems ranging from plants and soil, to organisms in the ocean and streams, to the human gut.