Wilkes University Scientist Leads Research Team Awarded $1 Million National Science Foundation Grant

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Team Will Study Effect Of Climate Change On Plant Life

Ned Fetcher, scientist and coordinator of the Institute for Environmental Science and Sustainability at Wilkes University, is the principal investigator on a research team that has been awarded a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of climate change on plants. The team will study the effect of a changing climate on tussock cottongrass, a plant indigenous to tundra ecosystems in Alaska. The grant funds research entitled “Collaborative Research: Local adaptation in a dominant arctic tundra sedge (Eriophorum vaginatum) and its effects on ecosystem response in a changing climate.”

Fetcher, whose share of the three-year grant is $285,737, will conduct research with co-investigators Jianwu (Jim) Tang of the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., and Michael Moody of the University of Texas at El Paso. Wilkes undergraduates will participate in the project as field assistants, spending up to 10 weeks during the summer at the Toolik Lake Field Station, 170 miles north of the Arctic Circle. 

The project builds on earlier research by Fetcher and his collaborators that showed that different populations of tussock cottongrass were adapted to the local environment where they originated. The new research will examine the causes and consequences of local adaptation of tussock cottongrass for the tundra ecosystems on the north slope of Alaska. Fetcher and Moody will study the genetic factors that lead to local adaptation. Genetic markers will be used to determine patterns of genetic diversity and gene flow for populations of tussock cottongrass in northern Alaska. The information will provide important insight into the ability of cottongrass to adapt to a rapidly warming climate. The project’s findings may serve as an indicator of how plants’ local adaptation affects plant responses to climate change. 

Gaius Shaver of the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biology Laboratory will serve as a consultant on a part of the research with Fetcher and Tang. It will test the hypothesis that local adaptation will have important consequences for plant phenology, which is the relationship between climate and seasonal phenomena in plants, such as flowering. The research will also study the consequences of local adaptation on photosynthesis, plant growth, and nutrient cycling. 

A second transplant experiment, to be carried out in collaboration with James B. McGraw of West Virginia University, will test the ability of seeds from different cottongrass populations to establish following fire. As the climate warms, fire is becoming more likely on the north slope of Alaska. This interdisciplinary team will help to fill a research gap between evolutionary biology and ecosystem science by recognizing that both evolutionary history and changing climate can have impacts on ecosystem function and ecosystem services.  

The project will have a broad impact on science beyond the direct research results for Arctic ecosystems. Patterns observed in the Arctic are expected to appear later in other ecosystems – so the findings of this project may serve as an indicator of the potential effects of local adaptation on plant responses to climate change. 

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