I have always been fascinated by the interaction of organisms, whether it be symbiotic, parasitic or the dynamics of communities. Throughout the last few years, I have been mainly focused on three different fields of research: Fungal Ecology, Microfluidics and The Plant Microbiome:
Fungal Ecology & Microfluidics
One of the most fascinating things about fungi is that we still know so little about them and their ecology. Studying the underground life of fungi has been intrinsically difficult due to the opaque nature of soils, and culturing fungi on homogenous media can only tell us so much about how they would behave under more natural conditions, navigating through the micrometre wide tunnels of the porous network in the soil. Through sequencing techniques, it is now possible to further assess the biogeography of fungi and draw ecological conclusions from their distributions, but the more detailed aspects of how the fungi actually perceive and interact with their environment still remains largely unknown.
With the new microfluidic techniques, we are able to monitor fungal foraging behaviour and environmental responses at the resolution of a single hyphae in a micro-structured yet transparent environment. This opens up for a lot of new studies investigating how fungi interact with their surroundings, whether there are physical limitations to their exploration of pristine habitats and it gives us a close up of fungal interactions with other fungi, microorganisms or even macro-organisms such as plants, who’s roots can be grown into the systems.
Read more about the application of microfluidics in microbial ecology and soil science in our latest publication: Build your own soil: exploring microfluidics to create microbial habitat structures.
The Plant Microbiome
While we have long known that plants are inhabited by a large variety of microorganisms, and that their effect on the plant host can be both beneficial and detrimental, it is only in recent years that researchers have taken a more holistic approach to the study of these microbes. Lately, extensive research has gone into cataloguing which microbes that thrive in different parts of the plant body, how these communities are formed and affected by disturbances, and exploring the idea that we might be able to modify these communities in agricultural settings.
One aspect of community ecology that I have had a special interest in is the role of priority effects in shaping persistent microbial communities in plants. Throughout my PhD I developed theories around how individual plant microbiomes may be shaped throughout the life of the plant and what role priority effects, and different events throughout the plant’s life would have on the composition and resilience of the community. These ideas were published in Aleklett K. & Hart M. (2013) The root microbiota – a fingerprint in the soil? Plant and Soil, 370 (1-2): 671-686.
Another aspect of the Plant Microbiome that I find of great interest is the processes of microbial inheritance in the plant life cycle. It is still largely unknown what role the flower, fruit and seed microbiome play in shaping the root microbiome, and whether modern agricultural practices are interfering in the transmission between generations by application of fungicides and seed sterilization.
My PhD project
When we gaze out over a meadow we see different things; an artist might see the shifting colors, a taxonomist the hundreds of species and a microbial ecologist the hosts of an underground network. Very seldom though, do we look at plants as individuals. We don’t give them names and track specific individuals throughout their lives in the same way as we do with animals, yet the potential for individuality among plants is just as large. Say we did name a plant though, and followed it throughout its life – what would the benefits be of looking at a plant as an individual?
By monitoring a specific plant individual from seed to death, knowing its heritage and all events throughout its life, it might be easier to determine which factors affect its health, productivity and fecundity. One aspect in the lives of plants that is starting to be of greater concern in both plant research and agricultural practices are the microbes in the soil with which it cooperates. For humans, the set of microbes we cooperate with in our bodies are referred to as our microbiota (sometimes also genetically referred to as our microbiome). I would like to turn focus to the microbiota of plants.
Microbes play an important role in ecosystems as primary producers, decomposers and function as symbionts to the vast majority of land plants . Research on plant-microbe interactions has to a large extent been focused on the nutrient exchange between the two symbionts and patterns of community assemblies, but there is little known about how individual these microbial communities are to plants and if they change throughout the plant’s life stages. To find out more about this I am currently working on experiments investigating the following aspects of the plant microbiota:
1. Determining if bacterial communities in roots are plant-specific.
2. Mapping bacterial diversity across a plant body.
3. Efficiency of microbial inoculation in plants at various developmental stages.
4. Microbial community stability at various developmental stages.
5. The importance of seed-coat communities for establishment of the microbial communities in roots.