The long-term objective of this research program is to predict how climate change will impact the invasiveness of a group of common grasses and their associated symbiotic fungi. Many Poöideae grasses used in pastures and for turf (e.g. parks, roadsides, etc.) in Canada originated in Europe. Because of their superior performance, they are preferred over native species. For some of these species, their global success is partly due to a mutualism that they form with fungal endophytes in the genus Epichlöe. Fungus-infected grass produce alkaloids that kill or deter herbivores, produce greater vegetative growth, have higher seed production, and are more tolerant of stressful conditions, particularly drought, than uninfected conspecifics. These traits are extremely useful for turf and pasture grass applications, and there is a significant industry built around exploiting this naturally occurring symbiosis. Unfortunately, the same traits that make these grasses desirable for human uses, also make them very successful when they escape cultivation, where they alter biodiversity, and change ecosystem functioning.
Endophytes are fungal and bacterial microbes that live inside plants without producing symptoms of infection. Many endophytes have beneficial effects on the growth of their host plant, for example, through plant growth hormone production, phosphate solubilisation, antimicrobial activity, or ability to induce disease resistance in plants. Currently, host-specific endophytes are used in perennial rye and tall fescue forage grasses to improve their growth and reduce insect herbivory. Because of this success and the discovery of other beneficial endophytes in different types of plants, researchers and biotechnology organizations have begun to test the efficacy of isolating beneficial endophytes from wild plants and introducing them into cultivated crops to improve plant growth. We are completing research in which we isolated fungal and bacterial endophytes from elite selections of a native prairie grass and biomass grass, big bluestem, that has been selectively bred for high production in a low-input system for 12 years. The objective of our proposed project is to characterize these endophytes biochemically to determine their plant growth-promoting properties, and then introduce the most promising strains into elite selections of big bluestem and switchgrass to test their ability to improve the growth of these two emerging biomass crops.
At large spatial scales, climate is often one of the most important factors determining the range of a species. We use mathematical modelling, sometimes supplemented with experimental work needed to estimate parameters, to map the areas that, in the future will have suitable climates for individual and interacting organisms. We mostly work with plants and insects for this work.
Imagine that you are an environmentalist who passionately believes that it is wrong to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. How do you convince someone that a decision to drill is wrong? Debates about the environment and how humans ought to treat it have gone on for decades, yet arguments in favor of preserving biodiversity often lack empirical substance or are philosophically naïve, making them far less effective than they could be. This work critically examines arguments that are commonly offered in support of biodiversity conservation. We adopt a skeptical viewpoint to thoroughly test the strength of each argument and, by demonstrating how scientific evidence can be integrated with philosophical reasoning, we help environmentalists to better engage with public debate and judiciously inform public policy.
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