Sarah Lawrence Biologist wins NSF Grant to Study Plant Diversity

Sarah Lawrence College biology professor Michelle Hersh has been awarded a research grant from the National Science Foundation in collaboration with Bard College biologist Cathy Collins, to study whether landscape fragmentation—the breaking up of habitats into smaller pieces—has a positive or negative impact on plant diversity. Their research has important implications for the conservation of natural ecosystems and biological diversity.

Specifically, the $600,000 grant will enable Hersh and Collins to look at the interactions between certain types of pathogens (fungi) and their plant hosts, and between those pathogens and the configuration of habitat fragments in which they are found. Plant diseases, which are often thought of as backyard nuisances or crop destroyers, can also play beneficial roles in unmanaged ecosystems by maintaining plant diversity. Each plant species has its own unique cohort of specialist pathogens. By slowing the growth or increasing the mortality of plants they infect, these pathogens can prevent any single plant species from dominating an area, and thus aid diversity. As ecosystems are broken up into smaller fragments due to changes in land use, smaller habitat patches experience environmental extremes such as higher temperatures, more light, and drier soil. Hersh and Collins hypothesize that less beneficial pathogens will thrive in such extreme environments, and plant diversity will be reduced as a result.

Hersh and Collins will seek answers to the question of whether it is possible that pathogens found in small patches will reduce survival of multiple plant species indiscriminately, and therefore decrease plant diversity. They will use a long-term experiment on habitat fragmentation in Lawrence, Kansas (KFS—the Kansas Fragmentation Study) to determine if and how landscape fragmentation interferes with plant-pathogen interactions that maintain local plant diversity. Both Hersh and Collins will incorporate students into all aspects of this work, including community outreach. At Sarah Lawrence, much of the community outreach will take place through the College’s Center for the Urban River at Beczak, an environmental education and research center located on the Yonkers, New York, waterfront.


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