College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Biology Professors Receive $1.7 Million in NSF Grants

NOVEMBER 7, 2011  | BY EDWIN SMITH

Faculty researchers in the University of Mississippi Department of Biology have been awarded five National Science Foundation grants totaling $1.7 million.

Each award provides funding for three years, and the research projects also include programs for enhanced training of graduate and undergraduate students from groups that are under-represented in science, as well as demonstrations and lesson plans for high school students and teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

“To have four competitive, peer-reviewed research grants and a major infrastructure grant all received in three months’ time is unprecedented in our department,” said Paul Lago, chair and professor of biology. “This illustrates the quality of the research being done by our faculty, which has been judged by other scientists to be among the best in the country.”

The funded projects include a study of the relationships between the roots of forest trees and the symbiotic fungi that live on them, understanding how important microbial communities vary among the rivers that are part of the Mississippi River Basin network, a study of the ants of Madagascar as a model for species diversification and evolution, and an examination of brain and hormone adaptations in tropical birds as a way of better understanding brain chemistry and architecture.

“National Science Foundation funding has been pretty tight lately,” said Jason Hoeksema, assistant professor of biology and principal investigator for one of the funded research projects. “It is an achievement for any one of us to get one grant, but being awarded five grants within the same department all in three months’ time is indeed noteworthy.”

Research projects are:

– “Collaborative Research: Price determination in ectomycorrhizal symbioses.” Hoeksema is the principal investigator, and Michael Booth of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks is co-principal investigator.

“Our research focuses on understanding the relationship between forest trees and symbiotic fungi, which live in the soil and act as extended roots helping them to get nutrients and water and protecting them from disease,” Hoeksema said. “Using ideas from the field of economics to model these trading relationships, we will be testing to see if those relationships differ among fungi species and across various conditions in the forest, which could lead to more accurate modeling of global climate-carbon cycles.”

A team will measure resource exchange prices between the Monterey pine and eight of its mycorrhizal fungi. The project will also train graduate and undergraduate students from groups that are under-represented in science, and work with teachers in Oxford and Lafayette County high schools to teach younger students about the vital role of fungi in the soil through a field trip and a yearlong experiment right inside the classroom, he added.

– “Bacterial Biogeography of Large Rivers in the Mississippi River Basin.” Clifford Ochs, associate professor of biology, is the principal investigator, and Colin Jackson, assistant professor of biology, is co-principal investigator.

“This project will describe the biogeography of microbial communities in the Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas and the Upper and Lower Mississippi Rivers,” Ochs said. “This study will provide new scientific understanding regarding the extent, causes and consequences of geographic variation in composition and physiological attributes of bacteria across this great river network.”

The information can help evaluate the role of different groups of river bacteria in using and chemically transforming natural organic or inorganic compounds, as well as possible pollutants, he said.

An educational outreach includes collaboration with local high schools to provide lesson plans on rivers and their watersheds. The project will also enhance training of undergraduate and graduate students in the study of rivers and develop a new course that examines the relationships of culture, ecology, ecosystem management and environmental ethics, while focusing on the Mississippi River.

– “Collaborative Research: Phylogeography in Madagascar: Using ants to test hypotheses of biotic diversification in a model continent.” Brice Noonan, assistant professor of biology, is the principal investigator and Brian Fisher of the California Academy of Sciences is co-principal investigator.

“We will study the incredibly diverse ants of Madagascar. As their origin postdates the isolation of the island from Africa, all 1,000-plus species have originated on that small island,” Noonan said. “These data will also allow us to rigorously test existing hypotheses of speciation, helping us understand the factors that allow species to persist, those that produce diversity and how populations may fare in the face of present and future changes to the landscape resulting from human activity.”

Educational outreach to local primary and secondary schools will occur each semester for the duration of the grant in collaboration with the UM School of Education. At the California Academy of Sciences, research will support the training of one master’s student.

– “Cerebellar Specializations for non-vocal Avian Courtship Displays.” Elaine “Lainy” Day, assistant professor of biology, is the principal investigator.

“In this project, we will compare dance complexities in 13 different species of birds that have a range of spectacular songs and dances they use to attract mates,” Day said. “Understanding the brain chemistry and architecture that enables this complex motor behavior in birds will extend studies of the role of hormones in cognition into the area of motor ability and can eventually help us improve the lives of the elderly and those with neurodegenerative disorders related to motor decline, such as Parkinson’s and ataxias.”

Training will be offered to several graduate and undergraduate students, offering learning opportunities in Central and South America. Tissue samples will be provided to museums, a bank of virtual brain sections created and DNA sequences for hormone receptors shared via NCBI websites.

– The MRI infrastructure project is to acquire an imaging flow cytometer and microscope for use in a variety of research programs. Ochs is the principal investigator, and UM faculty members Tamar Goulet, Richard Buchholz and Hoeksema are co-principal investigators.

“The flow cytometer and microscope, or FlowCAM, allows us to study individual suspended organic and inorganic particles ranging from 0.002 to 2 millimeters in size, including small soil particles, many single-celled organisms and even small aquatic plants and animals” Ochs said. “With this instrument, our investigators can now address important questions in aquatic ecology, soil science and pathogenic microbiology at a scale not before possible.”

Projects supported by the instrument include assessing the roles of algae in ecosystem services, such as nutrient retention in agriculturally influenced streams; measuring the impact of the invasive, plankton-eating Asian carp on the food resources of native fish species in the Mississippi River Basin; relating parasite load to mate choice in wild turkeys; understanding symbiotic relationships and co-evolution in tree-fungi and coral-algae symbioses; and understanding survival and distribution patterns of native and invasive mussel larvae.

The investigators will provide educational demonstrations and research opportunities for a high school-to-college summer bridge program designed to attract minority students to STEM fields. At the university level, the FlowCAM instrument will be integrated into several laboratory-based courses and will be used in faculty-supervised independent research projects.