Grant to support study on generalist microorganisms in agricultural systems

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Terrence Bell, assistant professor of phytobiomes in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, recently received a $480,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study generalist microorganisms in agricultural systems.

For many years, the terms “specialist” and “generalist” have been used in ecology to describe organisms that tolerate a narrow range of environmental conditions and a wide range of environmental conditions, respectively. For example, Bell explained, organisms that depend on a single food source might be referred to as resource specialists, in contrast with resource generalists that can use a variety of food sources.

This funding will allow Bell’s group in the college's Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology to develop and apply new in-soil selection systems that capture different types of generalist microorganisms in agricultural systems — specifically, those that thrive across a wide range of soil nutrient conditions or temperatures, and those that can transition between soil and aquatic habitats.

Bell said that studies of large multicellular organisms, such as birds, have shown that specialists are disproportionately affected by environmental change and that their contributions to ecosystem function may not be replaced easily by generalists. This work is aimed at revealing the prevalence and diversity of generalists in agricultural systems, but also to estimate the functional consequences of losing specialist microorganisms.

The identification and capture of microorganisms that thrive across a wider range of environmental conditions, Bell noted, could help lead to the development of microbial products for agriculture, including agricultural probiotics, which could survive more reliably when applied in the field.

Inconsistent survival is one of the main factors limiting the success of microbial products, and this challenge is a major area of focus in the Bell research group.


Last Updated May 28, 2020