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Kent State University professors focus research on the environment with grants totaling $890,000

Two Kent State University assistant professors recently received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue research beneficial to understanding the environment. The three grants total $890,000.

Christopher Blackwood, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, was awarded grants to support two separate research projects.

His first project, titled "Assembling Litter Decomposer Communities and Functions from the Leaf to the Landscape," will examine fungi that degrade leaf litter from trees. The three-year grant that runs through July 2012 is for $329,404. Blackwood's second research project, "Microbial Control of Litter Decay at the Cellulose Lignin Interface," will investigate a similar topic using different methods in the field and laboratory. Kent State's portion of this grant is $160,783, running through September 2012.

Blackwood said the process is important to understand because the fungi recycle nutrients needed by plants. The fungi also determine the fate of the carbon locked up by the leaves during photosynthesis. Fungal activity can return some carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but it can also form soil humus from the leaves. According to Blackwood, carbon stored in soil humus may not return to the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years.

"This research is trying to understand the importance of the fungal community during leaf decomposition," Blackwood said. "Specifically, we're examining the implications of having few fungal species versus many different fungal species, and how important it is to have particular fungal species present. We know the diversity of fungi is enormous, but we just don't understand how important it is in environmental processes."

Andrea Case, also an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, was awarded $400,000 in funding from NSF for her research project, "What factors regulate the frequency of females in natural populations?." The grant runs through July 2012.

Her research examines the Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), a plant that ranges from one- to four-feet tall and blooms with purple flowers in the fall. Native to eastern North America, the plant has a high frequency of females in some populations and no females in other populations.

Case said that the focus of the research is understanding what causes geographic variability of a trait.

"Most flowering plants are hermaphrodites," Case said. "It's not often that we find plants that are female or male. My research aims to understand why the frequency of females is so variable among populations of Lobelia siphilitica, and why we tend to find more females in southern populations and in small populations."

Plants become female by having a gene that causes male sterility converting a hermaphrodite plant into a female. According to Case, an understanding of how male sterility in plants varies geographically could even further understanding about diseases specifically, how they spread and become resistant.

"If we look at male sterility in the plant as a disease, we can examine how diseases spread or become resistant," Case said. "With this research, we can also try to understand why populations of the same species don't always behave in the same manner, which can, in time, lead them to become different species."

Both Case and Blackwood will collaborate on their projects with Kent State University doctoral students, research assistants and researchers from other universities.


Contact: Christopher Blackwood
Kent State University

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