Research highlights

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An international research collection comes to KU

The world's largest collection of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), initiated in 1985, came to KU in 2021 and will support research worldwide, as well as the study of AMF in commercial applications and as a basis for K-12 teaching.

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While our research center may be most often associated with studies related to prairies and grasslands, the range of topics extends far beyond this ecosystem, involves collaborators from many other institutions, and is in some cases focused on vast datasets. Survey research falls under three broad, often intersecting categories: terrestrial, aquatic and GIS/analytical studies. Actively funded projects in 2021 totaled 76; a sample of current projects follows. Publications included 47 in peer-reviewed journals, seven book chapters, and four in the Kansas Biological Survey series of project reports (now totaling more than 200). For a complete list of projects, see our searchable, up-to-date roster of publications and grants.

  • Kelly Kindscher, senior scientist and professor in KU's Environmental Studies Program, received a $28,600 grant from the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation) to synthesize all the historical information on Arikara agricultural practices, focusing on corn, beans and squash. The Arikara are a historic northern Plains tribe, located now on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. He is working with Native American colleagues in the fields of social work, indigenous studies, translation and linguistics.

  • Maggie Wagner, assistant scientist and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was awarded a three-year, $900,000 National Science Foundation IOS (Division of Integrative Organismal Systems) grant for a research project exploring the role of microbes in the hybrid vigor of corn crop plants: “Genetics and mechanisms of microbe-dependent heterosis.” The project provides support for two postdoctoral researchers, one doctoral student and two undergraduate researchers. In addition, it supports four high school teachers’ attendance of researcher-led workshops to learn about soil microbes and agricultural systems. Co-principal investigators were from the USDA Agricultural Research Service and North Carolina State University. See the KU News story on the research connected with this project.

  • The Bever/Schultz Laboratory was awarded a three-year, $460,935 NSF grant for a project that will enable the study of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi through support of the International Culture Collection of (Vesicular) Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (INVAM), the largest culture collection in the world of this type of fungi. The project also will enable the study of AM fungi for commercial applications. In addition, it will include the development of teaching modules on experimentation using INVAM cultures that support the K-12 Next Generation Life Science Standards. Jim Bever, principal investigator, is a senior scientist and KU Foundation Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a senior scientist. Peggy Schultz, co-principal investigator, is an associate specialist and a faculty member in the KU Environmental Studies Program.

  • Five scientists from our research center are part of a multi-institutional team awarded a five-year, $12.5 million NSF grant focused on the restoration of native prairie and agricultural ecosystems, with more than $3 million coming to KU. Collaborators include eight institutions and 26 scientists and educators. KU researchers will focus on native prairie ecosystems and polycultures using the trademarked perennial grain Kernza that is under development with The Land Institute in Salina. The KU researchers are Jim BeverPeggy SchultzMaggie WagnerBen Sikes (associate scientist and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology) and Tom McKenna (assistant research professor). The lead institution is the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. See the KU News story on this project.

  • Sharon Billings received funding through NSF’s Frontier Research in Earth Sciences for the project “Collaborative Research: How roots, regolith, rock and climate interact over decades to centuries — to R3-C Frontier.” The project team, which received nearly $3 million, investigates the top-down (vegetation, microbes) vs. bottom-up (bedrock, minerology) controls on soil structure and how that in turn drives elemental fluxes at the pedon, catchment and continental scales. Partners include Oregon State University, Colorado School of Mines, Kansas State University, Boise State University, Penn State University, and the University of California, Riverside. The project runs through 2025, with $432,000 coming to KU.

  • Amy Burgin, associate scientist and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and environmental studies, along with colleagues at KU, received nearly $3 million in continuing NSF support for the project"Aquatic Intermittency Effects on Microbiomes in Streams (AIMS).” The project involves investigators at 18 institutions and explores the ways intermittent streams — the half of the world’s streams that flow only part of the year — support both the environment and human populations. It is administered through the KU Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. See the KU News story on this project.

  • Chen Liang, doctoral student in geography working with Dana Peterson (assistant research professor) and Jude Kastens (associate research professor) and funded by KansasView (led by Peterson as part of the USGS AmericaView program), developed a web app called the Sentinal GreenReport. The app uses Google Earth Engine and Sentinal-2 satellite imagery — which provides 10-meter spatial resolution, much higher than previous platforms — to visualize NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) and NDVI change over time for any state or territory in the U.S. The app contains four map layers that are also in the MODIS satellite-derived GreenReport, which our KARS program has maintained for more than 20 years. Chen worked with Dana, Jude and Xingong Li, professor of geography and atmospheric science. Potential applications for the product are under discussion and include topics related to drought (fire risk, crop health and grassland forage productivity) and disaster response, as well as expanding to global coverage.