I started a PhD program in Integrative Biology in 2018, in the lab of Hafiz Maherali, where we study evolutionary ecology. I use these ALUS farms as model systems to study how nutrient loading affects relationships between plants and soil micro organisms. Mycorrhizal fungi are a type of micro organism that associate intimately with plants by forming nutritional mutualisms. In this mutualism, mycorrhizal fungi exchange scarce soil nutrients with plants for photosynthetically derived carbohydrates. These partnerships are decoupled by nutrient loading because plants are more able to obtain soil nutrients by their own means, without the carbon cost of supporting the mycorrhizal fungi. So in areas affected by fertilizers, plants decrease their association with mycorrhizal fungi, and the abundance of the fungi declines.
For my project, I will be answering questions like: Have mycorrhizal fungi been reduced in prairie grasslands affected by fertilizers? Are certain species of mycorrhizal fungi more tolerant to nutrient-enriched soils? If so, what functional traits have protected these species from local extinction? Are there functional shifts in mycorrhizal fungi as a result? And under these conditions, can we expect long-term ecological feedbacks on plant communities, and ecosystem functioning?