Research

For biologists, the beginning of the 21st century is a remarkable period. Paradigm-shifting technologies in genomics, spatial analysis, and data-sharing have accelerated the rate of discovery, and understanding of biological phenomena is becoming more integrated across disciplines. At the same time, society is facing substantial challenges in figuring out how to support increasing human populations and to mitigate human impacts on natural resources and other species.

In the Malmstrom Ecology Lab, we do fundamental research in plant, microbial, and landscape ecology to help society address important environmental issues. We are particularly interested in developing basic science understanding that can inform conservation and  restoration in "working" landscapes that simultaneously produce economic value, provide ecosystem services, and harbor wild species. Examining opportunities for synergy between production and conservation is important because the vast majority of Earth's terrestrial landscapes are now working landscapes.

To support native biota and concurrently meet production goals in working landscapes requires understanding of biological mechanisms and interactions at multiple scales. In our studies, we thus combine genomics and ecophysiology with geospatial analysis and ecology. We work in both the lab and the field, and take "molecular" or "ecological" approaches as best suits the question.

To develop fundamental understanding of biotic interactions in human-influenced landscapes, we explore questions such as,

  • How do anthropogenic selection pressures alter the stress tolerance of wild plants and their interactions with microbes, such as viruses?
  • In what ways do biotic interactions influence plant community dynamics and patch structure?
  • How do environmental and management factors interact to determine patch dynamics within landscapes?
  • In what ways do the structure and composition of landscapes influence the ecology and evolution of organisms as they move among different patches?

One interesting landscape type in which to consider these questions are grasslands, which bear the brunt of feeding humanity worldwide. FAO statistics indicate that 2/3 of the calories humanity consumes come either directly from grasses such as rice, wheat, and maize or indirectly from animals that themselves feed on grasses. In North America, as in much of the rest of the world, natural grassland ecosystems have been largely transformed by humans into commodity-producing landscapes. In the western USA, for example, semi-arid grasslands are important rangelands that support cattle and sheep alongside valued native fauna and flora.  Likewise, in the temperate-climate midwest, native prairies have been largely supplanted by fields of annual commodity crops, particularly maize, soybeans, and wheat. The native prairies that remain are typically small and surrounded by agricultural landscapes. Because of these vegetation characteristics  and their dual importance for food production and conservation, grasslands offer intriquing research opportunities.