K-State advances field of ecological genomics with research, symposium

MANHATTAN, KAN. — A Kansas State University professor’s research and the upcoming Ecological Genomics Symposium continue to make the university a leader in the emerging field of ecological genomics.

Ecological genomics is an integrated field that focuses on how organisms, ecosystems and communities respond to environmental change. It uses genomic technologies, such as gene sequencing and expression analysis, on a wider scale to ask and research ecological questions, said Michael Herman, associate professor of biology.

“We’re working hard to advance this field,” Herman said. “Our long-term goal is to be able to use genomic approaches to better understand ecological interactions.”

Herman works on ecological genomics research with nematodes, which are abundant animals that strongly respond to environmental disturbances. He has focused on how nitrogen addition to the soil affects nematodes.

Herman’s research team spent time observing nematodes in the field, and then moved to the lab where the researchers set up a procedure that exposed a model nematode to bacteria from prairie soils and then identified expressed genes. Now Herman and his research team plan to take what they have learned and apply it to native nematodes in the soil. Herman hopes to understand how nematodes choose what habitat to live in — whether their choice is because they grow faster or defend themselves better, or for other reasons.

Herman recently traveled to Maine to give a lecture at a seven-day course at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory. The event focused on environmental genomics, particularly with research involving Daphnia pulex, a common water flea species.

While environmental genomic focuses more on human-induced changes, such as pollution and toxic chemicals, Herman said ecological genomics focuses on interactions between organisms.

K-State has already positioned itself as a leader in ecological genomics with the formation of the Ecological Genomics Institute, a multidisciplinary initiative that involves faculty from three colleges and six departments, including biology, plant pathology, entomology, statistics, agronomy, and computing and information sciences.

The institute has become the only place in the world to house a homegrown central organization of faculty interested in ecological genomics. It is such research initiatives that could help K-State become a top 50 public research university by 2025. Herman and Loretta Johnson, associate professor of biology, serve as the institute’s co-directors.

In addition to Herman’s research, other areas of research in the Ecological Genomics Institute include hybrid speciation, transposons and genome evolution in wild sunflowers; genomics of plant virus-vector specificity and transmission; and ecotypic differentiation and genetic variation in the prairie grass Andropogon. As researchers have sequenced more genomes, they are trying to determine what different genes do. Researchers want to use the environment to characterize the genomes.

“We can make good observations and propose good hypotheses about what might be going on. We think we can use the organism’s genes to ask, ‘What do you care about?'” Herman said. “We think there is a lot to be gained by doing that, and it might be able to allow us to predict what happens when humans go and change the environment. If we understand that on a genetic level, that might allow us to look at the larger picture.”

To promote the field the Ecological Genomics Institute hosts and organizes the Ecological Genomics Symposium every year in Kansas City. What began as a local meeting of researchers and scientists eight years ago has grown to an international meeting and one of the premier meetings in the field of ecological genomics. This year’s symposium will be Nov. 5-7 at the Marriott Hotel in Downtown Kansas City.

For more information about the Ecological Genomics Symposium, including hotel accommodations, transportation and registration information, visit http://ecogen.ksu.edu/symp2010.

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