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The goals of my research are to understand the primary factors affecting species’ distribution and maintenance of biological diversity and to understand how anthropogenic activities influence natural communities and ecosystem processes. I have studied multiple taxonomic groups (i.e., insects, microbes and plants) in both aquatic and terrestrial study systems. My current focus is on the distribution of microbial communities and their influence on ecosystem processes.
Why Study Microbes?
To date, much of what we know about the origin, maintenance and distribution of diversity stems from research on terrestrial macroorganisms such as birds, plants and insects. However, microorganisms are the most abundant and potentially most diverse organisms in the biosphere. They play critical roles in many ecosystem processes and thereby control key pathways of biogeochemical cycling. Despite their central ecological importance and numerical dominance, the true extent of microbial diversity still remains poorly resolved due to significant theoretical and practical problems that have hindered the quantification of bacterial diversity in the past and the disciplinary boundaries that tend to separate microbiologists from ecologists. The development of new molecular and mathematical tools to evaluate microbial diversity, together with emerging theoretical frameworks, provide novel opportunities to describe fundamental diversity patterns and to explain their origin and maintenance.
I address questions regarding spatial and temporal patterns of the microbial diversity and community composition. I am interested in understanding how aquatic microbial diversity and community composition change along environmental gradients, including gradients of productivity, temperature, oxygen and salinity and how different microbial communities respond to anthropogenic stresses. I am also interested in understanding the link between microbial communities and biogeochemical processes. In particular, do microbial communities influence ecosystem properties such as the diversity of macroorganisms or the cycling of nitrogen in predictable ways? I am especially interested in examining the links between terrestrial and aquatic systems and in examining the response of aquatic microbial communities to climate change. In addition, work on feedbacks between different microbes and between microbes and macro-organisms will help us better understand the role of microbes in determining the distribution of macro-organisms and the role they might pay in succession and invasions.
This work combines molecular tools and approaches from microbiology with traditional statistical approaches from ecology. My approach offers a window into the patterns and underlying processes controlling bacterial diversity and lends insight into the extent to which microbes exhibit patterns documented in macroorganisms. It may thus allow us to uncover unifying patterns and processes common to all domains of life. It may also highlight the potentially unique features of microbial biology that influence the generation and maintenance of microbial diversity. Less than ten years ago, the ecological community knew very little about the ecology of micro-organisms, and as recently as 1995, the textbook answer to the question—what patterns exist in the diversity of micro-organisms?—was none as far as we know. My research shows mounting evidence that that ecological patterns do in fact exist in microbial communities and draws together the traditions, tools, approaches and ideas of microbiology and ecology.
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