A major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will involve multiple departments at Hope College in exploring the roles that fungi play in the ecosystem.
Dr. Thomas Bultman of the biology faculty has received an $885,773, four-year grant, one of only six awarded nationally through the NSF's "Collaborative Research at Undergraduate Institutions" (CRUI) program. It is the largest research award ever to Hope from the NSF. The project will involve five faculty from three disciplines and two institutions as well as several Hope students as co-researchers.
"The over-arching goal is to better understand the ecological interactions that these fungi have with other species, and that includes the plants that they live in and the animals that feed on the plants," said Bultman, who is principal investigator for the project and is also a professor of biology and chairperson of the department.
Bultman and the others will be studying species of fungi that live within grasses and the role that the fungi play. He noted that while some effects seem beneficial, others may not be. For example, the fungi appear to help the grass resist drought and predatory insects. It also happens, however, that the resultant decline in the grass-eating insects creates problems for wasps that eat the insects -- which in turn can have implications further along the food chain.
He is particularly pleased that multiple disciplines, including not only biology but also chemistry and mathematics, will be participating. "The system just lends itself to that because you're talking about a species that potentially interacts with many other species, and to be able to understand that you need to pull in other areas," Bultman said.
The timing was particularly appropriate, he noted, with the college's new science center opening at the start of the school year. The building was designed to foster connections between departments, to help better prepare students for the direction in which science in general is heading as the boundaries between disciplines blur.
"The division is very interested in enhancing the interdisciplinary aspects of our program, and this grant fits very nicely into that movement," Bultman said. "It allows students to be part of an interdisciplinary team and to see how that works, and that's very exciting."
Bultman will be examining how alkaloids produced by the fungi make the grass hosts poisonous to the plant-eating insects that prey upon them.
Dr. Janet Andersen, associate professor of mathematics and chairperson of the department, will work with Bultman to develop a mathematical model to represent the multi-leveled interaction between the plants, the insects that feed on the plants and the insects that eat the plant-eaters.
Dr. Kenneth Brown, assistant professor of chemistry, will analyze the alkaloid concentration in the plants.
Dr. Debbie Swarthout, assistant professor of biology, will seek to determine the biochemical reasons that the fungi affect the host plant's drought tolerance.
Dr. Christopher Schardl, who is a professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Kentucky, and Bultman will work together to study the genes that are involved in production of the alkaloids.
Approximately eight undergraduates will participate in the research at Hope each year. In addition, the mathematical model that Andersen and Bultman will be developing will form the basis for a laboratory module in the college's interdisciplinary course in mathematical biology.
The CRUI grant is the second NSF major award for Bultman in the past few months. During the summer, he received a three-year, $154,058 grant to fund the purchase of four controlled-environment, plant growth chambers. Intended primarily for other research projects, the chambers will have applications for the new project as well.