Unique cohort will support student exploration of agricultural microbiomes

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Faculty in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences are spearheading an initiative that will provide selected doctoral students with the opportunity for extensive study in the emerging field of agricultural microbiome research.

The mBiome student cohort will provide an interdisciplinary understanding of microbiomes — communities of microorganisms that live on or in nearly every environment on Earth, including people, plants, soil, oceans and the atmosphere — and the possibilities of their use to enhance crop yield/quality, reduce the environmental burden of agriculture, improve food quality and safety, and promote human health.

The group, which will be active members of the Penn State Microbiome Center and funded by departments and the College of Agricultural Sciences, will explore concepts in managing microbiomes in plants and animals.

"Penn State has made recent investments in microbiome research, and we think that we can be a leader in this new and growing field," said Terrence Bell, assistant professor of phytobiomes in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology.

"In particular, our focus on the manipulation of microbiomes in agriculture is unique. The manipulation of human gut microbiomes has been explored to some extent, but we are only just starting to look at agricultural microbiomes in the same way," he said.

He noted that, to date, many microbiome-focused graduate students have spent their entire graduate program figuring out how to analyze data.

"We want to get students over this hump so they can focus on asking interesting scientific questions," he said. "We aim to give them room to grow and explore research that is exciting to them, and our hope is that they will be the ones to help lead this new field of research."

The five students will be recruited by cooperating graduate programs and faculty. As part of their recruitment, they will be nominated and reviewed by the mBiome program faculty. Selected students will engage in a robust curriculum over a four-year period, beginning in fall 2018. The format will emphasize peer learning, group discussions, writing projects and research that involves mid-degree lab rotations.

"Microbiome research is innately interdisciplinary and it's hard to imagine a student coming in with all the tools they would need," Bell said. "Lab rotations will enable students to learn an entirely different set of skills, increase the impact of their research projects and provide additional training for their future careers."

Sharing Bell's vision for the cohort are Kevin Hockett, assistant professor of microbial ecology in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, and Darrell Cockburn and Jasna Kovac, assistant professors in the Department of Food Science.

All have interest and expertise in microbiome research and share a common goal of developing a strong research program focused on applied microbiome management that will bring Penn State to the forefront of agricultural microbiome research.

Kovac said she is pleased to be working on this innovative endeavor because of its potential to have a broad impact on agriculture through sustainable improvement of food productivity, safety, quality and functionality.

"There are many challenges of modern agriculture that require a systems-based, problem-solving approach, and training graduate students in a collaborative mBiome framework that emphasizes transdisciplinary microbiome research will facilitate their development of complementary scientific and professional skills needed to do exactly that, which in turn will lead to groundbreaking discoveries," she said.

Carolee Bull, interim director of Penn State's Microbiome Center, is an enthusiastic supporter of the effort, saying it is a fantastic example of how faculty and students can work together to create new technologies.

"The students in the mBiome cohort will enrich the Penn State Microbiome Center's efforts to mentor the next generation of microbiome researchers and also will strengthen and further energize the mission and educational program of the center," she said.

"Because of the targeted rotation model, the cohort will drive collaboration and cohesion among the participating and center faculty. With the type of mentorship and educational opportunities they will receive, I have no doubt they will have significant impacts on agriculture and society."

The students in the mBiome cohort will be funded, in part, by interdisciplinary graduate assistantships sponsored by the college's Strategic Networks and Initiatives Program. They also will be supported by intercollege and departmental graduate degree programs, including ecology, plant pathology and food science, among others.

The goal of Penn State's Microbiome Center is to support transformative, interdisciplinary research in microbiomes and educational opportunities at Penn State. Units involved in the center include the Colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Earth and Mineral Sciences, Engineering, Health and Human Development, Information Sciences and Technology, and Medicine; and the Bellisario College of Communications and Eberly College of Science.

Also participating are the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, the Social Science Research Institute, the Institutes of Energy and the Environment, and the Institute for CyberScience. Active members also come from the Arts Design Research Incubator and from other Penn State campuses.

To learn more about the cohort, visit the Microbiome Center's "Student Resources" webpage at https://www.huck.psu.edu/content/research/microbiome-center/student-resources. Information about the microbiome center can be found at https://www.huck.psu.edu/content/research/microbiome-center.

Last Updated February 27, 2018