Biologist receives $1 million NSF grant to study food crops

Stephanie Porter.Stephanie Porter, an assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences at WSU Vancouver, has received a prestigious $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. Over the five-year grant period, Porter will study the symbiosis between plants and their beneficial microbes and how that relationship changes as people domesticate plants for their own use.

The study will focus on legumes important in human diets worldwide, such as soybeans, chickpeas, peas, lentils and peanuts. Legumes account for a quarter of global crop production and a third of human dietary protein. The grant will enable Porter to scale up the research from the greenhouse, where she has collected preliminary data, to agricultural fields in Southwest Washington.

“The NSF CAREER award is a testament to Stephanie’s excellence as a scientist and an educator,” said Christine Portfors, vice chancellor for research and graduate education for WSU Vancouver and WSU Tri-Cities. “Her work addresses important questions of crop domestication and is a wonderful example of the land grant research mission. The award will enhance opportunities for WSU Vancouver undergraduate students to be involved in cutting-edge research.”

Microbes contribute to plant health in many ways. For example, legumes have a unique symbiosis with rhizobial bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen to usable forms, essentially fertilizing legumes so that they need less nitrogen added in the form of fertilizer. But as plants evolve through domestication, so does their symbiosis with microbes. As a result, some legume crops seem to lose some of the benefits they have enjoyed from microbes in the wild, such as nutrient provisioning and stress tolerance, and may require more chemical intervention.

Humans have domesticated at least 41 different wild legumes into crops. Porter plans to study these repeated domestications as a model system that can lead to a fuller understanding of how the relationship between food plants and beneficial microbes evolves during domestication. The research ultimately may point toward crop improvements based on microbes, such as higher yields and less reliance on fertilizer.

“If we can identify ways to make our crops better at getting nitrogen from symbiosis as opposed to depending on fertilizer, then in the future we could grow crops under more sustainable conditions,” Porter said.

In addition, Porter plans to use some of the grant funds to strengthen undergraduate science education. First, she will help students connect with evolutionary biology by developing an experimental module for an ecology class focusing on symbiosis and crop domestication. Second, she will develop an online clearinghouse, Science Scholars, to publicize opportunities for students in the sciences, such as laboratory positions and internships.

Top image: Stephanie Porter (WSU photo)

Originally posted by WSU Vancouver News.