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NSF Grant to Study Microbes and Tree Diversity

photo of Eric Griffin

Eric Griffin

Las Vegas, N.M. – New Mexico Highlands University is a partner in a National Science Foundation grant that will explore how microbes like fungi and bacteria influence forest diversity and health.

The four-year NSF grant is for $913,236 and will involve a partnership between scientists from Highlands, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

“The primary purpose of the grant is to understand how microbes can function as cryptic yet critical components that determine how entire forests operate,” said Eric Griffin, a Highlands biology professor who helped write the grant. “We will be using a long-term tree diversity experiment in Maryland called BiodiversiTREE, which began in 2013, as well as work in the greenhouse at Smithsonian and the University of Maryland to test how important below-ground and leaf microbes are in structuring tree defenses, insects, deer damage, and most importantly tree growth for almost 20,000 trees of 16 different species.”

Griffin said that ultimately, results from the tree research can be used in applying forest management practices to enhance both plant production and improve human welfare in the face of climate change.

Of the $913,236 NSF grant award, $166,236 will go directly to Highlands and Griffin’s research.

“My research involves traveling to Maryland with Highlands interns to conduct the field work on the tree diversity experiment. Specifically, we will be selecting leaves to sample for microbes and leaf chemistry analysis, as well as prepping all of the leaves in the lab to ship out for analysis. We will be working with Dr. Brian Sedio at University of Texas – Austin on the leaf chemistry analysis and using the sequencing center at Dalhousie University in Canada for the fungal and bacterial analysis,” Griffin said.

Griffin said that the NSF grant will provide opportunities for Highlands University students.

“I am thrilled that this grant will fund six Highlands students  – two per year for three years – each summer to travel to Maryland to live and work at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. It will be a great opportunity for our students to enter the Smithsonian Institution’s summer internship program, experience real field science at work, and provide great networking opportunities to help their careers,” Griffin said.

Griffin will be collaborating on the tree diversity research project with four other doctoral-level scientists, including Karin Burghardt from the University of Maryland, and John Parker, Melissa McCormick and Kim Komatsu from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

“The BiodiversiTREE site is at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and includes more than 32 acres of experimental forest,”  Griffins said.

Griffin said his work on the NSF grant will positively impact his teaching at Highlands.

“I will be using information, methods, and potentially data from the grant to integrate into courses for Ecology and Evolution, Plant Physiology, and graduate courses such as Advanced Ecology and Research Methods,” Griffin said.