Health & Environment

Trio of Scientists To Unlock Mystery, Power Of Microbiome

The cluster hire expands Texas A&M’s microbiome expertise, bringing innovative, collaborative research to a burgeoning field.
By Adam Russell, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications May 2, 2024

close up of a a woman's hand on soil
The collective expertise of the three scientists spans a wide range of microbiome research from soil and plant interactions to the gut microbiome in animals and humans. The spectrum of knowledge and scientific interest will help expand microbiome science and connect how these microorganisms interact and impact the environment as well as plant, animal and human health.

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A cluster hire of three microbiome scientists could help establish Texas A&M University as a leader in the rapidly advancing field that links microscopic biological community dynamics with soil, plant, animal and human health.

Across agricultural, health and environmental sciences, microbiome research is viewed as a burgeoning scientific field with high potential for cross-disciplinary collaboration, and that belief resonates across the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

As a result, the idea for a cluster hire of microbiome experts was conceived based on department faculty priorities, said Dr. Patricia Klein the college’s executive associate dean.

“Science is never static,” Klein said. “We are always trying to move the needle, and microbiome research is a field where many scientists would agree that much bigger breakthroughs are on the horizon. As a College within a land-grant institution, we want to be in position to lead in a field that has such broad and significant implications across agriculture and the life sciences.”

Dr. Joseph Edwards, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology; Dr. Erick Motta, assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Dr. Ying Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, continue to settle into their respective research programs following their 2024 spring semester hiring. The three scientists’ individual expertise focus on the interplay within microbiome communities in soils, plants and animals and the impacts of those complex, dynamic relationships.

While microscopes have allowed scientists to view microbes for some time, advances in gene sequencing have revolutionized the science by allowing researchers to clearly identify species and strains of species. For instance, two soil microbes of the same species may have genes that vary slightly in a way that makes one of them beneficial to plants and the other deadly.

Genomics continue to change how scientists identify microscopic organisms and analyze them at cellular levels. Improving capabilities are allowing scientists like Edwards, Motta and Wang to better understand how microbial communities that include tens of thousands of microorganisms ranging from fungi, bacteria, viruses, nematodes, microscopic insects and arthropods interact within natural and cropping environments and in animal digestive tracts.

The college announced the positions as a cluster hire and candidates were interviewed by departments knowing that three positions would be filled, Klein said. This cooperative approach helped departments weigh candidates’ curriculum vitae knowing the positions would be filled by scientists with complementary research focal points.

Klein believes the complementary aspect of the cluster hire generated excitement within the pool of scientists who applied for the three positions.

“I think applicants realized the opportunity for collaboration and that the college was investing in a group of scientists in this specific area,” she said. “They were all excited about having an opportunity to work with colleagues across departments and to find collaborative ways to move their own work, the cooperative work and the scientific field forward. And, I have to say the applicant pool was incredibly strong, and we landed three incredibly talented scientists.”

Portrait of Ying Wang
Dr. Ying Wang, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences

Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

Ying Wang Digs Into Soil Microbiome

Within the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Wang will primarily focus on plant and soil microbe interactions. She wants to understand how microbes interact with each other in complex communities and with plant roots, and how these interactions affect soil carbon, nutrient cycling and plant health.

Wang said microbial communities influence a range of soil health and environmental factors from carbon cycling to nutrient production and contaminant degradation. Understanding these ecological processes and relationships between soil and plants represents an opportunity for critical breakthroughs in methods and technologies for soil carbon sequestration and sustainable agricultural production.

“We’re talking about the ability to help mitigate climate change or make a plant grow and take up nutrients more efficiently,” she said. “This is a nature-based approach that can reduce the need for inputs like fertilizers and chemicals by creating and maintaining healthy soil microbial communities.”

The approach also represents a considerable tool to curb agriculture’s carbon footprint, Wang said. Around 25% of natural climate change mitigation potential is related to soil carbon, and research has shown microbial activity is a major contributor to carbon sequestration and exchanges.

Soil stores more carbon than the atmosphere and all plants combined. Microbes can also help pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Wang said. When plants take up carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, they release a large portion of that carbon into the soil, containing diverse carbon molecules. Soil microbial communities can turn them into forms of carbon that can stay in the soil longer.

Wang’s research focuses on the fundamentals of these complex processes like microbial carbon transformation that are still largely unknown. The goal is to identify the foundational characteristics, roles and signals between microbes and plants in soil environments. Much of her research so far has been in the laboratories and greenhouses, but Texas’ 1,300 soil types across 10 ecoregions will provide ample opportunities for field experimentation, she said.

“This work is very interdisciplinary, so I am very excited about the diversity of soils and ecoregions and the fact that Texas A&M AgriLife has 13 research centers spread across the state,” she said. “There is a lot of room for collaboration with faculty, from the soil side to the crop side, and it all connects back to soil, plant and human health.”

Portrait of Joseph Edwards
Dr. Joseph Edwards, Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology

Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

Joseph Edwards Searches For Plant-Soil Symbiosis

Edwards’ research in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology will be similarly focused on soil microbiomes, but also the plant-microbiota relationships that can benefit both. Root microbiomes and understanding the complexities of how they benefit plants by displacing pathogens or increasing nutrient mineralization is the broad view of his scientific interests.

But he is also particularly interested in how plant genetics could enhance the beneficial interactions with microbes.

“There may be 10,000 or so different microbes that belong to a community,” he said. “But what drives that composition, how do they work together, and what drives them to do what they do? I am interested in how we can breed plants to promote beneficial interactions with soil microbes based on the genes that impact those communities.”

Edwards said the end goal is to find the combination of plant variety and soil microbial communities that make plants most resilient.

Edwards uses bacterial isolation cultures to identify microbes’ genomes. He establishes microbial communities under controlled conditions to isolate various strains, then puts them together to see how they interact. Experiments show whether interactions are cooperative, competitive or adversarial and how the plant responds to their activity under different scenarios. Scenarios might also involve a range of environmental factors, including stressors like drought or a lack of nitrogen.

Much of his recent work focused on switchgrass, a resilient native plant species that performs well in very marginal soils. Edwards wants to understand how microbial communities might give switchgrass an advantage over other plants when it comes to its requirements for critical nutrients like nitrogen or water.

But he is also eager to expand projects to other plants and systems, including a return to rice research, which was the focus of his doctorate work.

“I’m very interested in working with the folks at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Beaumont and the rice growers,” Edwards said. “Growers have had a tough time because of water restrictions, and so I hope to make an impact in how growers can get optimal performance when factors are suboptimal for their crops.”

Portrait of Erick Motta
Dr. Erick Motta, Department of Entomology

Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

Erick Motta Links Soil-Plant-Animal Gut Health

Motta hopes to make similar contributions in the Department of Entomology by bridging the potential economic and environmental impacts Edwards and Wang expect from their research. His work focuses on how plants and other environmental factors translate to gut microbiomes in animals, specifically insects.

He hopes his work, which has primarily focused on bees, will answer basic questions and help establish foundational science on gut microbiomes.

Bees are a good research model because they are social creatures like humans, Motta said. They acquire microbiomes through social interactions primarily, as well as through the environment they live in. Acquisition of microbes and exposure to substances in the environment, including in their food and water, all contribute to microbial communities and overall health.

Bees also allow Motta to analyze and scrutinize how various microbes, microbial community makeups, environmental factors and substances, including chemicals like antibiotics or herbicides, may impact microbial dynamics in individuals and colonies. Motta said that knowledge and understanding of microbial dynamics can be applied across ecological and agricultural systems and extrapolated to bigger organisms, including humans.

“I am excited for the opportunity to extend and expand my research program, but I also know collaborations are foundational to successful scientific projects,” he said. “Resource and data sharing, knowledge exchange, all strengthens what we do as individuals, so coming to an institution like Texas A&M, and alongside colleagues in related fields, is very exciting.”

Read more about the cluster hire on AgriLife Today.

This article by Adam Russell originally appeared on AgriLife Today.

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