National Science Foundation Taps Danforth Center to Lead New Institute to Advance the Restoration of Natural and Agricultural Ecosystems

The $12.5 million collaborative program includes 26 scientists and educators from eight institutions, including the University of Missouri

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center today announced a $12.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish the New Roots for Restoration Biology Integration Institute (NRR-BII). Allison Miller, Ph.D., a member of the Danforth Center and professor of biology at Saint Louis University, will serve as the director of the NRR-BII, a collaboration between eight organizations, involving 26 scientists and educators.

The goal of the five-year research project is to integrate plant traits, communities and the soil ecosphere to advance restoration of natural and agricultural ecosystems.

“The New Roots for Restoration Biology Integration Institute offers an incredible opportunity to revolutionize the way in which we approach restoration of human-impacted landscapes by focusing on both natural and agricultural ecosystems in tandem, and by applying cutting-edge technologies used primarily in annual grain crops to wild plant species and perennial crop candidate species,” said Miller. “We are equally as excited about the opportunities for recruitment, training, retention and placement of the next generation of scientists, with a focus on persons excluded because of ethnicity or race (PEER), who will build their careers working across disciplines to restore wild landscapes and restructure agricultural systems for long-term sustainability.”

In addition to the Danforth Center, the New Roots for Restoration BII includes Saint Louis University and the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Shaw Nature Reserve, home to one of the Institute’s seven field sites. Building on the strong phenotyping capacity of the Danforth Center, the Institute establishes nine expertise cores to support scientific activities and training. It bridges to population and community ecology through the Chicago Botanic Garden and the University of Kansas, and to plant evolutionary genetics and agriculture through the University of Vermont, University of Missouri and The Land Institute in Salina, Kan.

The primary objective of the research at Mizzou is to characterize the extent to which root/shoot plant traits vary in monocultures — one crop — versus polycultures — multiple crops planted together. The system under investigation is intermediate wheatgrass planted with and without alfalfa. The unique trial at MU will have an added agroforestry component with pecan trees planted to create an alley crop design with the intermediate wheatgrass and alfalfa.

Sarah Lovell
Sarah Lovell

“We are thrilled to partner with the Danforth Center to apply cutting-edge technology to sustainable food production systems,” said Sarah Lovell, director of the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Center for Agroforestry and member of the Bll Executive Team. “We are proud to be a part of a collaborative effort to explore alternative cropping systems that offer environmental benefits, in addition to yielding healthy food.”

Land-use conversion, including both urbanization and agriculture based on cultivating a single crop in a given area, has impacted an estimated 75 percent of lands globally, and has contributed to the loss of approximately 50 percent of the world’s topsoil in the last 150 years. Central to the development of future food production systems are urgent questions of climate resilience, fossil fuel dependency and the reversal of soil degradation.

The North American prairie – a breathtaking, expansive ecosystem that stretches from Montana to Texas and from Colorado to Indiana – inspired the formation of the BII. What components of this natural ecosystem have allowed the prairie to sustain itself for thousands of years? The prairie comprises long-lived (perennial) plants growing together in diverse assemblages that build soil and the soil microbial community.

The project team believes that prairies offer a valuable model for human-mediated ecosystems of the future, including both restored wild lands, as well as re-imagined agricultural landscapes that mimic natural ecosystems and serve as a basis for the core question motivating their research: can critical ecosystem functions to wild and agricultural lands be restored?

More specifically, the research team seeks to answer basic questions including why are wild plant communities so diverse? Why are diverse plant communities more productive and what determines the rates of carbon sequestration in soil? Plants are unusual in that half their bodies exist above-ground, in air, while the other half lives below ground, in soil. NRR- BII scientists believe part of the answer to advancing restoration lies underground and in understanding how root traits influence plant interactions with each other and the soil. Through their research, NRR-BII scientists will provide insights into species coexistence and community assembly, information that can be used to guide reconstruction of native and agricultural systems and mitigate anthropogenic effects on terrestrial ecosystems.

The NRR-BII places detailed understanding of plant organismal systems in the context of populations, communities and the soil ecosphere. Through their root systems, plants connect above ground components of terrestrial ecosystems to the soil, yet there remains a lack of basic understanding about how plant traits, from shoots to roots, govern these connections. The BII will focus on the overarching theme of how parts of the plant roots and shoots relate to one another, how they vary across individuals, populations and species, and how those relationships influence and are influenced by plant communities and the soil ecosphere, including both the soil and its microbial community. The Institute focuses research activities on long-lived (perennial) plant species in three ecologically and agriculturally important plant families. Perennial plants are dominant features of wild landscapes and promising components of future agricultural systems that mimic nature. What are the genetic and environmental forces that determine perennial plant phenotypes? And what are the influences of perennial plant phenotypes on community and ecosystem properties?

The NRR-BII unleashes the Danforth Center’s state-of-the-art Bellwether plant phenotyping capacity and computational power, approaches used so far primarily in model systems and annual crops and will apply them in field and greenhouse experiments with perennial species. These approaches facilitate quantification of plant traits including imaging and analysis of above-ground phenotypes, below-ground plant phenotyping including mesocosms and X-ray, CT scanning, and a pipeline that quantifies elemental concentrations in leaves and other tissues, providing a proxy for root system function. The Danforth/SLU team will also develop a cellphone app for above-ground phenotyping.

To advance restoration, the NRR-BII will improve prediction of below-ground functional traits based on above-ground phenotypes. It will accelerate selection of robust perennial ecotypes for use in restored wild landscapes, as well as breeding of perennial crops like intermediate wheatgrass and alfalfa, for use in re-imagined agricultural ecosystems that mimic the prairie in diversity and perenniality.

In addition, a primary goal of the BII is to revolutionize training the next generation of scientists. Restoration requires a diverse, nimble workforce that understands relationships between plants, communities and the soil ecosphere, and that can work at the intersection of agricultural and natural systems. The BII leverages the Danforth Center’s well-established education research lab programs and partner institutions, and constructs highly integrated education, training, diversifying and outreach activities intentionally designed with many points of entry and ready mobility across participating labs and institutions.

Each year, NRR-BII members will participate in extensive training in leadership, mentorship, equity and inclusion and create/renew an agreed upon list of norms that will lead to a code of conduct to support “PEER” trainees. Every summer, labs will host six to seven undergraduate research interns through existing programs. Interns also will have mentorship, leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion

training. Trainees will attend workshops run by BII experts to learn cutting-edge research techniques to computationally analyze images of both above- and below-ground plant phenotypes.

Through existing partner programs based at the Saint Louis Science Center, the Chicago Botanic Garden and other partner institutions, interns and senior mentors will give outreach talks at local high schools to discuss STEM careers, college readiness and NRR-BII research. Five to 10 high school students will be recruited to participate in a six-week paid summer internship as part of the outreach program. High school interns will be mentored by undergrads, who inturn will be mentored by senior mentors in the lab. This near-peer mentoring scheme lets students put their mentorship training into practice and build leadership skills.

In addition to Miller, the BII executive leadership team reflects the project’s thematic diversity. Four members of the executive team are based at the Danforth Center, including plant biologist Ivan Baxter, Ph.D., and education/outreach leads Kris Callis-Duehl, Ph.D., and Ruth Kaggwa, Ph.D. Plant evolutionary geneticist Eric Von Wettberg, Ph.D., will represent the University of Vermont while Kay Havens, Ph.D., of the Chicago Botanic Garden, will lead restoration ecology of natural areas and Sarah Lovell, Ph.D., of MU’s College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources, will represent agro-ecology. The soil ecosphere-theme will be led by soil microbial ecologist Jim Bever, Ph.D., of KU, and Tim Crews, Ph.D., of The Land Institute, will lead the abiotic soil work. The executive team will oversee institution budgets, supervise projects and monitor expertise cores. Additional Danforth Center principal investigators participating in the NRR-BII include Noah Fahlgren, Ph.D., Malia Gehan, Ph.D., and Christopher Topp, Ph.D.

The BII was established with support from the NSF Biology Integration Institutes program, award number – 2120153.

About the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research, education and outreach aim to have impact at the nexus of food security and the environment and position the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow us on Twitter at @DanforthCenter.