MSU’s Shade Receives NSF Award to Research Rare Soil Microorganisms

Ashley Shade has received an $800,000 National Science Foundation grant, jointly awarded by NSF’s Population and Community Ecology and Ecosystems Studies Clusters in the Division of Environmental Biology.

Ashley Shade, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics in the Michigan State University (MSU) College of Natural Science, and in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences in the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, has received an $800,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, jointly awarded by NSF’s Population and Community Ecology and Ecosystems Studies Clusters in the Division of Environmental Biology.

The five-year grant award, which begins July 1, supports research to investigate the diversity and functions of rare microorganisms in a soil ecosystem impacted by a long-term disturbance, with the goal of determining how they contribute to the system’s resilience to this disturbance. These types of microorganisms are thought to be important when environments fluctuate because they provide functions that help their ecosystem resist change or to recover quickly.

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to pursue this project and am passionate about understanding microbiome resilience and its consequences for the environment,” said Shade, whose research team focuses on microbial ecology of environmental systems including plants, soils and their feedbacks.

“The National Science Foundation award will allow us to enthusiastically advance this research, which we expect will provide key insights into the links between microbial diversity and functions when environments change,” Shade said. “I am especially grateful as a woman scientist who balances the demands of a research career with a young family, as my son was four months old when I submitted this proposal last year. It is an honor to receive the CAREER award and I thank the NSF, my mentors and Michigan State for their support.”

The Centralia, Penn. soil ecosystem—the site of a long-burning coal seam fire—will serve as a model of severe disturbance for this project. Surface soils will be collected annually from established sites along a fire-impact gradient so that community changes over time due to the influence of fire can be quantified. Bacteria isolated from field soils also will be arrayed into synthetic microbial communities to assess outcomes of competition between rare and abundant microorganisms.

Another goal of the research will be to evaluate the abilities of rare microbial taxa to persist given disturbance and respond to specific environmental changes that result from the disturbance.

Collectively, these efforts will provide insights into the ecological roles of rare microbial taxa, and microbial biodiversity more broadly, for community stability and function. Microorganisms—the smallest life forms—have large and critical roles in maintaining the health of ecosystems, and their environmental microbial communities provide essential functions, including the cycling of key resources such as carbon and nitrogen.

Before coming to MSU in 2014, Shade was a Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation postdoctoral fellow of Life Sciences Research Foundation at Yale University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison in 2010.

Shade is member of the Earth Microbiome Project and the International Society for Microbial Ecology and serves as an editor for the American Society for Microbiology journal, mSystems, and the Society for Applied Microbiology journal, Environmental Microbiology.

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