Soils contain a phenomenal diversity of microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, which are responsible for critical processes that support agriculture, determine nutrient and carbon cycles, maintain clean air and water, and sustain biodiversity. However, the factors determining the composition of microbial communities—and the functional consequences of their variation—are still poorly understood. Plants can manipulate these microbial communities. Given that plant roots and the chemicals they release—root exudates—are actually in the soil, better characterization of root characteristics will improve our predictions of plant effects on microbial communities and the ecosystem services they provide.
This project will use laboratory, greenhouse, field, and computational approaches to evaluate the effects of plant root exudates on soil microbial composition and function. Because exudates and root characteristics are difficult to measure, we will also examine relationships between hard-to-measure root characteristics and easier-to-measure plant characteristics, such as leaf properties and plant taxonomy (i.e., family, genus, etc.).
We will conduct this work in restored tallgrass American prairies, an endangered ecosystem, and deliver our results directly to landowners and natural resource managers responsible for the creation and maintenance of this landscape. Additionally, the project provides educational opportunities for members of the public, ranging from high school students to retired adults, and will train early-career scientists in cutting-edge techniques.