Professors use local environment to increase their research efforts

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What do the genes of nematodes and big bluestem grass have to do with ecosystems?  For Michael Herman, associate professor of biology, they mean a lot. Herman’s research specializes in ecological genomics, a growing area of study.

“Ecological genomics draws from different disciplines within biology to ask the simple question: what genes do organisms use to adapt to their environment?” Herman said.

Herman said studying these creatures can lead to discoveries in basic biological processes throughout the animal kingdom, including humans.

“In terms of ecological genomics, nematodes are abundant, are found in all ecosystems and respond strongly to environmental perturbations, making them prime environmental sentinels,” he said. “Understanding how they respond to environmental perturbations will tell us what mechanisms other species use to respond to similar perturbations.”

Herman said he and his research team are studying the nematodes, which are microscopic worms, to learn about what factors native soil nematodes use to establish communities of organisms. They are currently working in the Integrated Genomics Center here at K-State to sequence the genomes of four nematodes found in the soils of the Konza Prairie.

 “We’ve focused on the interactions of soil nematodes and bacteria, which is interesting because bacteria can be both prey and predators, as many bacteria also are pathogenic to nematodes,” he said. “So we’re interested in how nematodes use different genes to balance between feeding on bacteria and defending against them.”  

Herman is the co-director of the Ecological Genomics Institute, a multidisciplinary initiative that involves faculty from several colleges both nationally and internationally and in areas of biology, plant pathology, entomology, statistics, agronomy and computing and information sciences. Herman said there are 20 faculty members at K-State from six departments and three colleges.

“This is the largest concentration of researchers dedicated to ecological genomics in the country and perhaps the world,” he said.  “We have various programs that contribute to the intellectual environment that inspires us to do our work.  For example, we hold an annual symposium in K.C., which is one of the premier meetings in this new field, to which folks from all over the world attend.”

Herman said he along with Loretta Johnson, associate professor of biology and co-director of the institute, have worked to build the institute with funds from both K-State and the National Science Foundation.

“We have become leaders in the field, helping to establish and define this area of research,” he said.

Johnson said she researches phenotype variation in big bluestem in response to drought and across the Great Plains. She said she has test plots across the plains ranging from Illinois to Colby, Kan. Her research relates back to the institute because she is looking at the genetic basis of stem variation and adaptation.

Johnson said she finds working with her colleagues within the institute intellectually stimulating and rewarding for K-State’s 2025 initiative to become a top 50 research institution, in part because of the interdisciplinary nature of their collaborations.

“I think the main thing for the institute in general is that it has been kind of a magnet for recruitment of new faculty,” she said. “It’s interdisciplinary, and folks seem to thrive in that environment.”

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