NSF Funds Kent State Research Team’s Interdisciplinary Study of Plant Biodiversity

Scientists have long recognized that biodiverse ecosystems are more stable and productive. What makes ecosystems diverse is having many species living together in the same place. But what factors allow for the success of the species in diverse communities? Are there some species that just can’t live together while others can?

A pair of Kent State University researchers will explore this question thanks to a new $580,000 award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Andrea Case and Chris Blackwood, respectively associate professor and professor of Biological Sciences in Kent State’s College of Arts and Sciences, will lead a team that includes colleagues at the University of Florida and Indiana University on the five-year $1.5 million project, entitled “Ecological and evolutionary processes affecting the co-existence of close relatives.”

The project is funded by a new program in the Division of Environmental Biology at NSF—Bridging Ecology and Evolution (BEE).
Christopher Blackwood
Andrea Case, associate professor of biological sciences at Kent State

“Closely related species are likely to have similar traits and similar ecological needs,” said Case, “which may result in close relatives being more likely to live in the same environments. On the other hand, similarities may cause close relatives to compete or interfere with one another during growth and reproduction, making it less likely that they can co-occur in the long term.” Focusing on close relatives will allow Case and Blackwood to examine both evolutionary and ecological processes at work, a major goal of the NSF–BEE program.

The project focuses on North American species of Lobelia, a diverse genus of wildflowers with 23 species native to the eastern United States and Canada. Some Lobelia species have been found to co-occur frequently and are spread widely across the region, while others are rarely found together and have limited geographic ranges.

Case and Blackwood say the project is an opportunity to study patterns of co-existence from a unique cross-disciplinary perspective, as evolutionary biologists like Case and ecologists like Blackwood usually approach these questions from different schools of thought.

“We knew that we had complementary expertise, but it wasn’t until we were working together on the proposal that we realized that we might look at the same pattern and attribute it to completely different mechanisms.” Blackwood said. “This means we need data to see how these ideas fit together.”

Case’s research in evolutionary biology focuses on processes related to mating and reproduction, while Blackwood’s ecological studies focus on how plants interact with soils and microbes. Other team members will determine the relationships and evolutionary histories of North American Lobelia and evaluate what happens when these species hybridize. Together, these pieces will help the team better understand how and why species do or don’t co-exist, a key factor in understanding diversity and conservation.
Blue-flowered Lobelia puberula (foreground) growing alongside red-flowered Lobelia cardinalis (background) in southeastern Kentucky (photo: Andrea Case)

Case and Blackwood will spend the first year of the project documenting the geographic distribution of each species and defining their unique traits and niches in the field. Samples collected from each species will be used to determine their relationships based on genome sequencing. Seeds collected will be used to develop two experimental gardens where they will co-mingle roughly two dozen different natural species. The team will even introduce some hybrids, to study how Lobelia species that do not usually co-exist might affect each other and the ecosystem around them. These gardens will be constructed in Indiana and Florida, near the natural boundaries of many Lobelia species’ geographic ranges.

“This research will improve our understanding of how ecological and evolutionary processes affect co-existence and biodiversity,” Case said.

The project also will provide broad training for student researchers, and public outreach will include creation of a museum display on biodiversity and species co-existence.

Case is a member of Kent State’s Environmental Science and Design Research Initiative (ESDRI), of which Blackwood is a co-director. Blackwood said the project highlights multiple aspects of ESDRI’s core research strengths and its collaborative spirit.

“Understanding how diversity is maintained is fundamental to sustainability. Without knowing how things got to be the way they are now, it is impossible to forecast what happens next,” he said.

The diversity of North American Lobelia species was also recently highlighted through an artistic collaboration, when Case teamed up with Taryn McMahon, MFA, assistant professor of studio art at Kent State, to make several hand-pulled prints created with Lobelia species from northeastern Ohio. The print, entitled "Layered Similarity," was recently displayed at a gallery in Stockton New Jersey.

“It nicely displays the variation in sizes and shapes of Lobelia species” Blackwood said. “I would argue that is key to their coexistence, but Andrea thinks it has more to do with flowers, pollinators, and other mating barriers. It might be both. Doing this project, we’ll see.”

Media Contacts
Jim Maxwell: jmaxwel2@kent.edu, 330-672-8028.
Emily Vincent: evincen2@kent.edu, 330-672-8595

POSTED: Thursday, June 25, 2020 - 12:07pm
UPDATED: Friday, June 26, 2020 - 7:44am
WRITTEN BY:
Dan Pompili