Soil microbes are vitally important to ecosystem function. Bacteria and fungi decompose dead plant and animal matter and make the nutrients contained within them available for plants to use for growth and other functions; the living plant material is then available for consumption by other organisms. Despite their ecological value and ubiquity, little is known about how soil microbial communities are affected by the diversity of the plant communities with which they co-exist. Individual plant species cultivate different microbial communities, and recent work is showing that the genetic identity of the plant, as well as the species identity, may affect its associated microbes. Using constructed sand dune plant communities in Michigan that mimic levels of species diversity and genetic diversity found in nature, this study is one of the first to address how plant species diversity and genetic diversity influence microbial community structure and function. The microbial community will be characterized using several techniques, providing detailed information on the diversity of microbes present as well as their roles in the environment. Establishing linkages between plant and microbial diversity will illuminate this potential avenue for plants to influence ecosystem function via soils. <br/><br/>Results from this study will provide valuable information to conservationists and restoration ecologists by elucidating the relative roles of multiples levels of diversity for ecosystem function. Furthermore, this project will help restore a critically endangered ecosystem (freshwater sand dunes) and provide information on optimal restoration practices. Results will be widely distributed to conservation groups, including the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Nature Conservancy, and the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, and government agencies, including the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. This research also offers several opportunities for undergraduate students interested in field ecology.
DISSERTATION RESEARCH: Consequences of plant species and genetic diversity for microbial community composition and function