University scientists unite to study biodiversity with help of NSF grant

The five-year grant will fund research on interactions between insects, microbes and their environment

Matt Forister at Silver Lake collecting insects to bring back to the lab. Silver Lake is a seasonally-dry lake bed just north of Reno, with a diverse grassland and sagebrush plant community.


1/20/2017 | By: Michael  Olinger |

There are estimated to be roughly 10 quintillion (that's 10 with 18 zeroes after it) insects in the world. That is roughly 1.4 billion insects for each of the planet's 7 billion people. We are, to put it mildly, outnumbered. Most people don't spend much time contemplating the staggering diversity that surrounds us. That, however, is how University of Nevada, Reno associate professor of biology Matt Forister spends much of his time.

Forister received a grant from the National Science Foundation that will let him probe into the world of insects, plants and microbes in an attempt to better understand the way they interact with each other. The grant will enable Forister and fellow scientists from the University and four other schools to study the interactions between and diversity of insects, plants and the microbial world through the lenses of chemistry and genetics.Butterfly

"I have always been interested in the diversity of insects and diverse groups in general, which is why the recently funded project is exciting - it's about microbes and insects," Forister said. "If you're talking about diversity of things on this planet, it's hard to beat the combination of microbes and insects." 

The NSF grant will allow Forister to ask questions about insects and microbes in the field, under natural conditions, something that would have been difficult to do as recently as a decade ago without recent technological advances. 

"How do fungal microbes and bacterial microbes interact with insects, and how do they interact with plants in the wild?" Forister said. "And it's the ‘in the wild' part that's the novelty here, because there are microbes and insects that people study in the lab, but the technology now exists to go out into the wild and survey an enormous diversity of microbes that we really don't know much about."

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Preparation, collaboration and chemistry

Since receiving funding through the NSF in August, Forister has been hard at work preparing the project. He is planning to begin field work in May and has been working to bring in a postdoctoral researcher, purchase equipment and set up research collaborations in the meantime.

"I'm always interested in collaboration and new technologies, but this really funds that," he said. "In particular, the microbial connection. I'm not a microbial biologist, but I now can work with one. The funding facilitates the chemistry collaboration, and it facilitates more molecular work."

Among those collaborating with Forister will be University chemist and lecturer Craig Dodson, who will play an integral role in the work being done.

"Craig and I are collaborating on experimental design and deciding what to do, and then Craig will specifically oversee the processing of specimens and the interpretation of results from that aspect of the work," Forister said. "Craig is just a great chemist, and we're lucky to have him as part of the project."

Forister and Dodson, both based in the College of Science, have worked together many times before and are founding members of the University's Chemical Ecology Institute, which their project falls under. The program was created by University chemists and ecologists interested in doing cross-disciplinary work.

"Ecology has often been hindered by not having access to the best tools and people that are trained in state-of-the-art techniques," Forister said. "But we just have the right combination of people here, so we're now doing the best chemistry in an ecological context, which was the motivation for making it a formal group."

In addition to collaborating with University colleagues like Dodson, the project will also bring in scientists from the University of Tennessee, the University of Wyoming, Utah State University and Texas State University as part of the NSF's Dimensions of Biodiversity program, which is tasked with understanding the way that different organisms interact to produce patterns of biodiversity in the world. Each university will handle a different part of the data analysis once field work is completed.

The $540,000 grant covers five years of research at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the total award amount is $1.9 million across all universities.

"It's nice to have NSF funding that's specifically dedicated towards biodiversity, which isn't always the case," Forister said. "It's about taking different perspectives on diversity, from chemistry and genetics and the microbial world and entomology and putting them together and asking how they interact, which is what makes it fun. And we have funds, also through NSF, to bring our discoveries to local schools, which is a rewarding aspect of the work. It's nice to be able to show local students some of the amazing plants and animals that essentially live in their backyards. Nevada, and the Great Basin in general, can be a subtle place. You don't always see the biodiversity when you're driving by on Interstate 80, but if you get out and look, there's a lot going on."

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