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Distinguished professor to explore potential role of microbiome in safer agriculture

Friday, February 16, 2018

LAWRENCE — Tiny organisms could hold the key to safer, more sustainable agricultural practices. A University of Kansas distinguished professor will explain how the microbiome – the microbial communities associated with plant roots and leaves – may offer guidance on better management practices in agriculture.

James Bever, Foundation Distinguished Professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and senior scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey, will deliver his inaugural distinguished professor lecture at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, in the Big 12 Room of the Kansas Union. His presentation is “Plant productivity and diversity, what drives them, and why you should care: Microbiome determines plant community structure and function.” The lecture is free and open to the public.

“I argue that the dynamics of the plant microbiome in unmanaged plant communities provide both reason for caution and guidance on best approaches to management of microbiomes in agricultural systems,” Bever said.

His talk will explore current ag practices that often produce environmental damage and the beneficial microbes that could play a role in reducing environmental decline.

America’s thriving ag economy is driven by high levels of plant productivity that are largely reliant on heavy use of chemicals. High yields through use of pesticides and herbicides come with additional costs such as reduced soil fertility and nutrient pollution of drinking water, Bever said. However, recent research offers some optimism that agricultural yield could be influenced by manipulation of plant microbiomes.

“My work has focused on the dynamics of the plant microbiome largely in unmanaged plant communities,” Bever said. “I have found that microbes can play a large role in structuring plant communities, including determining levels of plant diversity and patterns of plant productivity.”  

Plant productivity can benefit from interactions with strong microbial mutualists, where the microorganisms are in a symbiotic relationship where each benefits. However, successful management of the plant microbiome will depend upon the dynamics within the microbial community, Bever said.

Bever joined KU in 2016 when he was appointed to be one of 12 Foundation Distinguished Professors. He is a world-renowned scientist who works to understand the influence of microbiomes on plant productivity and diversity. He has developed frameworks that integrate the microbiomes into plant community dynamics, which have been pivotal to understanding the large role soil organisms play in structuring plant communities. His lab has found that soil microbiomes change rapidly in association with particular plant species and that these microbial changes can increase, but more often decrease, the performance of that plant species.

He has authored or co-authored 135 scientific articles and in 2016 was identified as being in the top 1 percent of highly cited ecologists. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense. He has received Guggenheim, Fulbright and Bullard fellowships, the NSF Career and OPUS awards, and he is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Before coming to the KU, Bever was professor and chair of the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior Section at Indiana University. Bever completed a bachelor’s degree in honors biology at the University of Illinois, a master’s degree in ecology at the University of Michigan, and a doctorate in botany and genetics from Duke University.

Photo: Foundation Distinguished Professor James Bever. Credit: Andy White, KU Marketing Communications.