Amanda Meier and Christian Cely Ortiz, graduate students in ecology and evolutionary biology, have been awarded this year’s EEB/Matthaei Botanical Gardens Research Award.

Meier is investigating how common mutualists of plants below ground, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, influence the blend of scents produced by milkweed (Asclepias) plants. “Changes in plant scents can affect the ability of herbivores to locate host plants and natural enemies to find herbivores,” Meier said. “Therefore, my proposed research will help elucidate the mechanisms by which microbes below ground may shape interactions among plants, insects and their natural enemies above ground. Furthermore, by understanding the intricacies of these interactions, we may be able to improve pest management strategies in agriculture and forestry while increasing nutrient uptake and stress tolerance of crop plants.”

In related news, Meier will present “The Far-reaching Effects of Soil Fungi on Plant-Insect Interactions” at the 29th Annual Michigan Wildflower Conference in East Lansing, Mich., March 6. Members of the Wildflower Association of Michigan are owners of plant nurseries, landscape designers, educators, homeowners, and more. Meier’s advisor is Professor Mark Hunter.

Cely’s research asks these questions: Why do workers in a nest of social wasps help the queen to reproduce, and forego their own reproduction? How does this behavior evolve? “The most accepted theory that explains this behavior is inclusive fitness theory, which is based on the idea that individuals who are more closely related genetically, such as siblings, tend to cooperate more than non-related individuals,” Cely said. 

Cely’s research will test inclusive fitness theory by manipulating the genetic relatedness between workers (siblings) in the social paper wasp, Polistes dominulus, by performing artificial insemination in the queen. Some colonies will have queens inseminated with sperm of several males (less genetic relatedness between workers) and other colonies will have queens inseminated with sperm of just one male. “To measure how this genetic manipulation alters behavior (e.g., cooperation) and productivity (e.g., amount of wasps produced by the nest) in a natural-like environment, I will transplant the inseminated colonies to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I expect that the trade-off between productivity and cooperation is mediated by genetic diversity.” Cely is advised by Professor Elizabeth Tibbetts.