The chemistry inside a plant changes with its environment, and assistant professor of biology Elizabeth Pringle has set out to determine how drought impacts the “phytochemical landscape” of plants in Northern Nevada.
Pringle was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, the most prestigious award supporting early-career faculty from the NSF. The NSF has identified CAREER awardees as faculty who have the potential to be academic role models in their institution. There are approximately 500 CAREER and Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) awarded each year across the entire United States.
What is the goal of your CAREER project?
Plants connect two very basic sets of ecological processes: food webs and nutrient cycles. Plants turn sunlight into food for animals and microbes using air, water, and soil nutrients, and these food webs decompose, cyclically, affecting future food webs. A recent hypothesis (“the phytochemical landscape”) proposed that plant chemistry is central to both food webs and nutrient cycles—a window through which we might understand variation in interactions between organisms and their environment, and the consequences of such variation for ecosystems.
This project, titled “Feedbacks from drought on the phytochemical landscape,” will test this phytochemical-landscape hypothesis in the 21st century in the face of hugely disruptive human-driven global change. Here in the West, this change includes persistent and severe drought, caused by rising temperatures and erratic rainfall and snowfall. Our prior work has shown that plant chemistry has been shaped by historic climatic conditions in the Great Basin and that the chemistry of individual plants changes in response to drought. Interestingly, the more severe the drought and/or the more other stress that plants experience simultaneously (for example, drought combined with damage from plant-eating insects), the less variable the chemistry of plant individuals appears to be. In the work supported by the CAREER award, my co-workers and I will investigate whether these effects of severe drought extend to entire plant communities, utilizing rainfall-exclusion and rainfall-addition experiments in mid-elevation sagebrush ecosystems and whether these effects feed back to changes in plant-animal interactions and soil carbon cycling. In so doing, we will develop a robust program of research projects for undergraduate students in collaboration with the McNair Scholars Program and UNR’s Office of Undergraduate Research, and we will collaborate with Sierra Nevada Journeys, a local educational non-profit, to provide outreach to Northern Nevada schoolchildren with the goal of increasing the recruitment of undergraduate students who are first-generation and/or from underrepresented groups into STEM disciplines.
What potential impact can the project have on society?
We have only one planet to live on—Earth—and humans are changing it profoundly. We depend on ecological systems for so much: food, water, the regulation of our climate, and the rejuvenation of our spirits, but it is difficult for ecologists to predict what the consequences of our huge planetary experiment in the burning of fossil fuels will be for these systems. The experiments in this project will examine how increasing drought will affect the diversity, composition, and function of Great Basin ecosystems, and whether we can predict some of these effects through a better understanding of plant chemistry. A better understanding of the processes underlying the changes in store for these systems has the potential to help us develop better approaches to land management.
Meanwhile, we also aim to have more immediate societal impact through the educational goals of the project, which seek to expand active outdoor learning by University students and Northern Nevada schoolchildren. Outdoor educational experiences can improve science learning and natural-resource stewardship, but children in low-income communities tend to have less access to such experiences. By collaborating with established, impactful programs that are designed to increase access to graduate school for first-generation college students (the University’s McNair Scholars Program) and to increase science proficiency among the first-generation college students of tomorrow (Sierra Nevada Journeys), we aim to expand educational opportunities for underrepresented students and to diversify the ecological workforce of the next generation.
What impact will the research have in your discipline?
Ecology is the branch of biology that investigates interactions between organisms and their environment. Such interactions and their consequences tend to vary in space and time, which can make it difficult to generalize and make predictions. The phytochemical-landscape hypothesis offers an exciting lens through which to see all of this variation, and potentially to understand it. We still rarely think about the feedbacks between food webs and nutrient cycles in ecology, and here we may be able to determine if the strength of such feedbacks is disrupted by drought—a common and widespread ecological disturbance. Moreover, through our collaborations with organic chemists and the use of emerging metabolomic technologies, we have more potential than ever before to understand the role of diverse compounds and chemical mixtures in mediating these effects. Finally, instead of considering variation to be something that gets in the way of prediction, this project will test the extent to which variation itself can be predicted and functions as a driver of ecosystem dynamics.
I am very excited to embark on this next stage of our work on the ecology of the Great Basin with the help of this outstanding support from the National Science Foundation. The University has the best programs in the world for studying the questions that I have described above, and I feel very lucky to be here. I would like to thank all of my students and postdoctoral fellows whose work has contributed to the development of the ideas in this project, as well as our broader Plant-Insect Group (“PIG”) within the Biology Department; the Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology Graduate Program; and the Hitchcock Center for Chemical Ecology, whose work and ideas are a constant inspiration. I am also very grateful to the University’s Office of Research & Innovation, the Department of Biology, the College of Science, the Agricultural Experiment Stations, and the Hitchcock Center for Chemical Ecology for their support.