March 24, 2020
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Kenyon has been selected to play a critical role in the National Science Foundation’s “Dimensions of Biodiversity” study to better understand and describe the role and scope of life on Earth, with a focus on Sphagnum (peat moss) as an ecosystem engineer.
The foundation awarded the College a $389,805 grant to “use peat mosses as a model to better understand the connections between DNA sequence variation, plant traits and ecological function,” according to the award abstract from the NSF.
Kenyon is collaborating in the peat moss study with Duke University — the study’s lead institution — the University of New Mexico and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory near Knoxville, Tennessee. Each institution received a portion of an overall $2 million award.
“People outside Kenyon recognize that we have a strong program here that mirrors the expertise and resources at those other participating research institutions,” said Chris P. Bickford, assistant professor of biology and the study’s principal investigator. “Our undergraduate component was a strong selling point. The research team was very careful about who it invited.”
More than a dozen Kenyon students will participate in the study over five years. They will be involved in physiological and computational aspects of the investigation, which seeks to link key traits such as photosynthesis and respiration with genetic attributes such as DNA sequence variation. It will be done “in a way that has not been done before at this level,” Bickford said.
The award also will pay for student exchanges with other participating institutions, noted Karen Hicks, associate professor of biology and co-principal investigator.
The peat moss project is part of a nearly $15 million examination involving other institutions to deepen understanding of the earth’s biodiversity.
Although peat moss accounts for about 10 percent of the Earth’s surface area, it contains almost one-third of the earth’s soil carbons. The build-up of peat moss influences regional patterns of water movement and the global cycling of atmospheric nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane.
“With this grant, we’re in some pretty high-powered company,” said Hicks.
“This is an opportunity to figure out the connections between how an organism lives in a particular environment by studying where it is from, how it works and what kind of genes it needs to live. We are really excited about this new project.”