“Now that we’ve identified these changes, we want to find out the mechanisms causing them to occur,” says the project’s principal investigator, Steven Allison, UCI professor of ecology & evolutionary biology. UCI

Irvine, Calif., Aug. 29, 2019 — A group of University of California, Irvine scientists believes a clue to withstanding climate change could be lurking in fields near their campus. Now the research team from UCI’s School of Biological Sciences and Department of Earth System Science has won $2.7 million in federal funding to dig deeper into how soil microbes respond to drought. Their work is part of the national Genomic Science Program, a U.S. Department of Energy initiative examining ways to best grow biofuel crops in the future.

The scientists’ project stems from research they’ve been conducting in Orange County parklands in partnership with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. With Southern California especially vulnerable to drought, the grasslands and shrub lands offer particularly relevant locations for their investigation. Studying the microbiome of dead plant matter nourishing the soil at these sites, the team found that the community of several hundred species of bacteria and fungi shifts in composition when deprived of moisture.

“Now that we’ve identified these changes, we want to find out the mechanisms causing them to occur,” said principal investigator Steven Allison, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology.

It could be that microbes already suited to drought increase in abundance. However, it’s also possible that some microorganisms not cut out for dry conditions might adjust by mutating. The latter scenario could hold promise for the globe in withstanding climate change, Allison said: “If the world is limited to only the genetic material we have now, it means our survival is limited.”

According to co-principal investigator Kathleen Treseder, professor of Earth system science and ecology & evolutionary biology, the probe into potentially mutating microbes will take the researchers into uncharted territory. “How species can adapt to climate change is one of the big mysteries in our field,” she said.

Team members use a technique known as microbial caging to conduct their work. They collect dead plant material from the surface of the grasslands and shrub lands, wrap it in a nylon membrane, and add sterile material and groups of microbes – then seal it all up and place it back in the fields. After designated periods of time, the scientists retrieve the bundles and examine their contents.

Co-principal investigator Jennifer Martiny, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology, believes it could well be that mutations have occurred. “Microbes have very large population sizes and much shorter generation times, so microbial species could potentially evolve to adapt to new conditions,” she said.

In addition to providing insights that could be significant for biofuel crops, the project has broader implications, according to co-principal investigator Adam Martiny, professor of Earth system science and ecology & evolutionary biology. “Due to their abundance, microorganisms are crucial to how our planet functions,” he said. “As such, we need to fully understand how they’ll respond to the severe environmental changes we likely will experience in the future.”

Michael Goulden, professor of Earth system science, is also a co-principal investigator on the project, which is being conducted in collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 36,000 students and offers 222 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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