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Biologists Awarded NSF Grant
For Prairie Restoration Experiment

 MAILED:  Sept. 15, 2004

EAU CLAIRE — Two University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire biologists and their student assistants are using a 15-acre plot of ground in Eau Claire County as a scientific laboratory for a prairie restoration experiment.

The project will add to the basic science of plant biology and ecology and lead to a better understanding of how to restore prairies and grasslands in a way that is best for the land, the biologists said.

Funded by a $316,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Evan Weiher and Tali Lee are investigating how several important forces combine to control the composition of organisms in an ecosystem. They are collaborating with mycologist Steve Bentivenga, a fungi expert from UW-Oshkosh, who received an additional $70,000 for his piece of the project.

By varying the planting history, soil nitrogen and fungicide applications throughout the site, researchers can compare and assess their relative and independent importance in terms of species richness and composition, Weiher said.

The site is divided into 180 test plots. It's planted with native prairie plants such as Big Blue Stem and Indian grass, 10 legumes and 20 species of wild flowers. Some plots have fewer species planted in them, some more. Some are fertilized with nitrogen, some are not. Some have applications of fungicide that reduces the mainly positive effects of mycchorhizal fungi, some have no fungicide.

By varying the planting history and the amount of soil nitrogen and fungicide application, scientists can do comparative studies over the next three growing seasons aimed at understanding the importance of these three factors during the assembly of plants and fungi communities.

"We know these things singly can have effects on the plant community composition, but we haven't looked at various combinations of these factors," Weiher said. "I think that's why we were funded. We're moving from a demonstration mode to a comparative mode that recognizes that embracing the complex nature of ecosystems is essential for understanding."

Lee, an ecophysiologist, is interested in understanding mechanisms underlying the responses of organisms to their environment. She said responses at the organ and whole plant levels will provide insight into factors that ultimately affect community responses by integrating knowledge of the functional biology of wild species with ecosystem level processes.

"For example, legumes are plants with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, which is unusable by most plants," Lee said. "With this ability, legumes likely play critical roles in communities, especially under low nitrogen conditions. I'll be evaluating the effects of species richness and nitrogen on nodulation and nitrogen fixation in legumes and whether these responses depend on certain fungi."

Prairie restoration efforts need experimental evidence to guide efforts for greater success, Lee said. "This project will yield valuable data for restoration ecologists to answer questions about conditions that result in invasions by outside species, some of which could be non-native problem species, or to have a better understanding of the role of fungi in establishing a new community," she said.

In keeping with UW-Eau Claire's emphasis on faculty-student collaborative research, graduate students Deb Freund, Fall Creek, and Kathye Miller, Lodi, and undergraduates Kris Grzelak, Thiensville, Michael Fell, Neenah, Amanda Hoffelder, Coon Rapids, Minn., and Beth Ryan, Rochester, Minn., assisted Weiher and Lee. With funding from the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, the students worked through the summer, gaining knowledge and experience while contributing to the project.

"Our student assistants make it possible for us to do big projects like this," Weiher said. "We could never undertake this kind of research without graduate students and undergraduates. Educationally this project will provide an outdoor laboratory for students for a long time."

The grant received by Weiher and Lee is from NSF's Research in Undergraduate Institutions program, a frequent source of research dollars for UW-Eau Claire.

Since 1999, extramural research awards to UW-Eau Claire has increased by 126 percent, Chris Lind, assistant vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs, said, adding that in fiscal 2004 awards totaled nearly $2 million.

"These resources bring tremendous value to the university through the advancement of scholarly knowledge, education of undergraduate students, professional/research develop of faculty principal investigators and the enhancement of UW-Eau Claire's reputation vital to efforts to attract top quality faculty and students," Lind said.

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JW/JB

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Updated: September 15, 2004