With more than 7 billion microorganisms in the soil, it’s no surprise we still have
a lot to learn about
them and their impact on the environment. A
West Virginia University
researcher is uncovering critical information about these tiny organisms
under our feet, which although small, can have a huge impact on the environment.
Ember Morrissey, assistant professor of
environmental microbiology in the
Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, received a $150,000
grant from National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology’s Early-concept
Grants for Exploratory Research program, known as EAGER, to increase understanding
of the behavior of microorganisms in the soil to provide descriptions of microbial
function that currently aren’t available.
Morrissey’s research will lay the groundwork needed to figure out how soil can be
managed to address environment-related processes and issues, including global warming
and climate change.
Of particular interest for Morrissey and other researchers is the ability to formulate
more precise predictions of microorganisms’ carbon cycling, or how they use and
create carbon, a key to combatting climate change.
“Soil stores a large fraction of the earth’s carbon – actually more carbon than the
atmosphere and biosphere combined,” Morrissey explained. “Microorganisms break
down and consume this carbon as they live and grow, converting it into the greenhouse
gas carbon dioxide.
“Consequently, the activity of microorganisms in soil has the potential to alleviate
or worsen climate change, so we need to form predictions regarding their activities.”
At the basis of Morrissey’s research: decomposition. Using this integral ecosystem
process, Morrissey will investigate the role evolutionary history plays in determining
The NSF Division of Environmental Biology supports fundamental research
on populations, species, communities and ecosystems. More specifically, the EAGER program
supports exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative,
research ideas or approaches that could lead to further research and discovery.
Morrissey’s proof of concept research project fits the bill.
“In the past, the study of complex microbial communities has been slowed by the methodological
limitations,” Morrissey said. “This support has enabled us to use the most advanced
In addition to one research technician, Morrissey has one graduate student working in her lab and is seeking motivated undergraduate students to add to her team.
“There are still many unanswered questions about how microbial biodiversity influences
ecosystem function,” she said. “This is a very exciting time as we can now quantify
the activity of individual microbial species and begin to understand how they contribute
to ecosystem-level processes.”
CONTACT: Nikky Luna; WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources