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MSU's Long-Term Ecological Research program awarded $7.65 million NSF grant

By Val Osowski

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The W.K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program at Michigan State University recently received a renewal of its foundational grant from the National Science Foundation, reaffirming its future and status as one of the country’s premier research sites.

Nick Haddad standing in a prairie strip at the LTER site located at MSU's Kellogg Biological Station.

Nick Haddad standing in a prairie strip that is part of the KBS LTER. Credit: Elizabeth Schultheis.

Established in 1989, the KBS LTER is one of 28 NSF LTER sites nationally and is the only one dedicated to understanding the ecology of agricultural systems. With a focus on row crops, the 34-year-old program studies how agriculture can be environmentally friendly without harming yields.

A renewal proposal can be submitted to the NSF for consideration every six years, making this the KBS LTER’s seventh successful funding cycle request. This cycle's funding of $7.65 million began Dec. 1, 2022 and will run through November 2028, extending the project’s research to 40 years.

Sarah Evans (left) and LTER graduate student Corinn Rutkoski are posing for a photo in an agricultural field where they are collecting soils to examine what microorganisms degrade pesticides.

Sarah Evans (left) and LTER graduate student Corinn Rutkoski collect soils in an agricultural field to examine what microorganisms degrade pesticides. Credit: Cole Dutter

MSU animal ecologist Nick Haddad and microbial ecologist Sarah Evans led the grant proposal, “Ecological and Social Mechanisms of Resilience in Agroecosystems.” In it, they detail the program’s new focus on climate change and land use change.

“We have inherited this incredible set of experiments and data from the past three-plus decades and now, with this grant in hand, we are looking at a bright future for the program,” said Haddad, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology (IBIO) in the MSU College of Natural Science, and a KBS faculty member. “This grant provides the opportunity to answer new questions about how ecological systems are responding to global environmental changes and how we will work to understand the resilience of our ecosystems.”

Because climate change projections reveal an increase in short, intense droughts, varied precipitation, and higher temperatures during the Midwest growing season, the scientists will help farmers and policymakers understand how crops can withstand these changes.

Drone image of the KBS LTER's main cropping system experiment.

Drone image of the KBS LTER’s main cropping system experiment. Credit: Ruben Ulbrich

With the renewed funding, KBS LTER will continue to test if harnessing biodiversity can also improve agriculture. Researchers are introducing strips of prairie habitat throughout corn and soy croplands. Establishing biodiversity on small sized prairie lands may take many years, but once microbes, plants, and insect predators, and pollinators are established, scientists can determine if their presence has a positive effect on soil health and crop yields.

“Securing this foundational NSF grant is key to our site’s continued success. By synthesizing the work from the last six years and finding salient themes, we formulated new hypotheses to test with new studies,” said Evans, an IBIO associate professor and KBS faculty member. “We are pushing science forward on all fronts in a variety of fields.”

The program’s research has a broad impact on multiple industries and communities. “Landscapes for Biodiversity” involves incorporating conservation and biodiversity into existing farmland, like with the prairie strips. “Carbon for Croplands” is a new incentive focusing on less intense approaches to farming, such as reduced tillage, to sequester carbon in soils and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. “Ecology for All” endeavors to lift historical barriers for working in and using ecology in the agricultural sector.

“We are always trying to innovate and integrate our research across multiple disciplines, acknowledging that any agricultural decisions are not just based on the ecology, but also based on values and economics,” Evans said.

Both Evans and Haddad are also faculty affiliates of MSU’s Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior graduate program.

Other faculty co-PIs on the grant are Bruno Basso, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, MSU; Doug Landis, Department of Entomology, MSU; Jennifer Lau, Indiana Univeristy; Sandra Marquart-Pyatt, Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences, MSU; Christine Sprunger, Sasha Kravchenko and Phil Robertson, Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences, MSU; Phoebe Zarnetske, Department of Integrative Biology, MSU; and Liz Schulteis and Nameer Baker, LTER staff, MSU.

With 69 faculty, 58 grad students, and 49 postdoctoral researchers, KBS LTER is a large, complex collaboration of disciplines at the intersection of research, life science, social science, and education.

Banner image: Installation of the rainfall exclusion experiment at the KBS LTER, one of the new treatments added to the experiment in 2021. Credit: Nameer Baker.