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MSU Plant Biologist Receives NSF Grant to Study Natural Defense in Plants

Michigan State University plant biologist Marjorie Weber is the lead investigator of a five-year, $1.1 million National Science Foundation Dimensions in Biodiversity grant to study the evolutionary dynamics of bodyguard reward traits of wild grape plants.

These traits—called mite domatia—are small structures on plant leaves that house beneficial mites as bodyguards. In return for housing provided by domatia, mites protect the plant by eating microbes and small herbivores on the leaf surface. Weber’s research leverages the natural variation in domatia across wild grapes to understand how these plant traits function by affecting leaf communities.

Bodyguard reward traits are among of the most well-established forms of natural defense that have evolved in plants against their enemies. In return for their protection, these bodyguards are rewarded by plant-provided food or shelter.

Grape plants are especially interesting in their reward traits, since some species have domatia and are defended by bodyguards, while other species, including many of the most economically important, do not. Mites housed in domatia protect the plant by cleaning the leaf surface of microbial pathogens and small herbivores.

“This research will help us understand the biology of an interesting and ecologically important plant trait, while at the same time allowing us to test fundamental theory about the evolution of cooperation between plants and animals,” said Weber, a plant biologist in the MSU College of Natural Science.

The research will result in data on interactions between grapes, their herbivores, beneficial arthropods and the leaf microbiome. These data will be made public and have the potential to inform grape agriculture and breeding.

The project will also result in the hands-on training of young scientists and will include the development of tools aimed at increasing the visibility of research in classrooms. Project Biodiversify spearheaded by Ash Zemenick, a postdoc in Webber’s lab, provides an easy way for teachers to find diverse scientists to highlight as role models in their classroom lectures.

“I am particularly thrilled that this grant funds the continuation of Project Biodiversify–an online repository of teaching materials that promotes diversity in biology classrooms,” Weber said. “Scientists can look many ways and come from many different walks of life, but that isn’t always evident from the examples used in textbooks and standard classrooms.”

Danny Schnell, professor and chair of MSU’s plant biology department, noted that the Dimensions of Biodiversity program is one of the most prestigious and competitive at the National Science Foundation and that receiving one of these awards is a true honor, particularly for faculty members at the early stages of their career.

“The department is delighted that the NSF has recognized the significance and impact of Marjorie’s work,” Schnell said. “Her project to understand how plants evolve mutually beneficial traits in response to their interactions with other organisms is a major driver of biological diversity.”

The grant begins in September 2018.

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