From: Paul Schaefer, ENN
Published September 11, 2007 05:03 PM

Researchers To Study Ecological Genomics

MANHATTAN -- A research geneticist at Kansas State University, will be taking a much closer look at the complex relationship between genes in a microscopic worm and a changing environment. "Global change" says Dr Michael Herman,"is making the environment sick, and we're using genomics to understand exactly what's going wrong."


A big federal grant will allow him to continue his research on soil nematodes, a nearly microscopic organism, in the emerging field of ecological genomics.


The money comes from a National Science Foundation grant of $622,000. With it, Dr Herman will further his research on soil nematodes, a nearly microscopic type of worm, in the emerging field of ecological genomics. Ecological genomics, also called EcoGen, investigates the connection between genomes and a changing environment.


"Most genomic research these days focuses on medically relevant questions that help us understand human biology and what goes wrong when we get sick," Herman said. "We can think about the environment in the same way.


Past studies of nematodes in a laboratory setting have shown that the activated genes in lab nematodes are different than those living in the natural environment. Herman hopes to pinpoint which genes are activated or deactivated based on different environmental conditions. With the results, scientists will be able to answer many questions about soil ecology, such as soil quality or potential contamination that may affect the food web, Herman said.


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Herman and colleague Loretta Johnson, ecologist at K-State's Division of Biology, first formed the study of ecological genomics at K-State in 2002. The concept arose as the two developed an appreciation of the other's discipline.


"At the time, it was rare for ecologists and geneticists to talk to each other about their science," Johnson said. Through team teaching, Herman and Johnson developed a friendship and realized that combining both ecological and genetic approaches is a powerful new way to answer questions about the environment.


Nematodes are an ideal organism for this type of study because they often respond quickly to a changing soil environment and they are some of the most abundant invertebrates in the soil, Herman said. He has been performing genetic studies on nematodes in the lab for more than 20 years. With the help of his colleagues, Tim Todd, K-State nematologist, and John Blair, K-State ecologist, Herman will be sampling nematodes in their natural habitat from Konza Prairie Biological Station, a Long Term Ecological Research facility funded by the National Science Foundation at K-State. The nematodes will be taken back to the lab to perform genome sequencing.


Joseph Coolon is the first student in K-State's ecological genomics program. A doctoral student from Olathe, Coolon made a key contribution to Herman's new research on nematodes with work that he started as part of his dissertation.


"There are so many questions to answer because no one has done any research in this area," Coolon said. "This has opened so many doors for me. Dr. Herman and I are very excited about the new National Science Foundation grant because it will provide us support to research the really interesting things we discovered during the seed grant funding from the National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, and K-State's Targeted Excellence Program."


The Ecological Genomics Institute, established as a K-State provost's office Targeted Excellence program, as well as its predecessor, the Ecological Genomics Program, is co-directed by Herman and Johnson and headquartered at the Division of Biology.


"Targeted Excellence was created to fund research with the potential of enhancing K-State's status, Herman said.


"The ecological genomics proposal serves as a model for others," said Al Cochran, K-State assistant provost. "The proposal was very well written and their project had a great deal of merit. Ecological genomics, by its very nature, is interdisciplinary, which fits the guidelines of the Targeted Excellence program."


The funding from the Targeted Excellence program provided Herman a seed grant necessary to obtain larger grants, such as the one from the National Science Foundation.


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