A cluster hire of three microbiome scientists could help establish Texas A&M University as a leader in the rapidly advancing field that links microscopic biological community dynamics with soil, plant, animal and human health.

Across agricultural, health and environmental sciences, microbiome research is viewed as a burgeoning scientific field with high potential for cross-disciplinary collaboration, and that belief resonates across the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

As a result, the idea for a cluster hire of microbiome experts was conceived based on department faculty priorities, said Patricia Klein, Ph.D., the College’s executive associate dean.

“Science is never static,” Klein said. “We are always trying to move the needle, and microbiome research is a field where many scientists would agree that much bigger breakthroughs are on the horizon. As a College within a land-grant institution, we want to be in position to lead in a field that has such broad and significant implications across agriculture and the life sciences.”

Joseph Edwards, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology; Erick Motta, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Ying Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences continue to settle into their respective research programs following their 2024 spring semester hiring. The three scientists’ individual expertise focus on the interplay within microbiome communities in soils, plants and animals and the impacts of those complex, dynamic relationships.

Cluster hire drew exceptional microbiome scientists

While microscopes have allowed scientists to view microbes for some time, advances in gene sequencing have revolutionized the science by allowing researchers to clearly identify species and strains of species. For instance, two soil microbes of the exact same species may have genes that vary slightly in a way that makes one of them beneficial to plants and the other deadly.

Genomics continue to change how scientists identify microscopic organisms and analyze them at cellular levels. Improving capabilities are allowing scientists like Edwards, Motta and Wang to better understand how microbial communities that include tens of thousands of microorganisms ranging from fungi, bacteria, viruses, nematodes, microscopic insects and arthropods interact within natural and cropping environments and in animal digestive tracts.

A person's hand planting a pepper plant into the soil.

“They want to make an impact, and we want to support their efforts in as many ways as possible, whether in their roles as researchers, faculty or mentors. The goal is to make sure we’re setting them up for success, and we think bringing them in together can make a difference.”

Patricia Klein, Ph.D.
Executive associate dean

The College announced the positions as a cluster hire and candidates were interviewed by departments knowing that three positions would be filled, Klein said. This cooperative approach helped departments weigh candidates’ curriculum vitae knowing the positions would be filled by scientists with complementary research focal points.

Klein believes the complementary aspect of the cluster hire generated excitement within the pool of scientists who applied for the three positions.

“I think applicants realized the opportunity for collaboration and that the College was investing in a group of scientists in this specific area,” she said. “They were all excited about having an opportunity to work with colleagues across departments and to find collaborative ways to move their own work, the cooperative work and the scientific field forward. And, I have to say the applicant pool was incredibly strong, and we landed three incredibly talented scientists.”

Ying Wang digs into soil microbiome  

Photo of Ying Wang, Ph.D.. She is wearing a blue shirt with a gray jacket and black pants.
Ying Wang, Ph.D., joins the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. (Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife)

Within the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Wang will primarily focus on plant and soil microbe interactions. She wants to understand how microbes interact with each other in complex communities and with plant roots, and how these interactions affect soil carbon, nutrient cycling and plant health.

Wang said microbial communities influence a range of soil health and environmental factors from carbon cycling to nutrient production and contaminant degradation. Understanding these ecological processes and relationships between soil and plants represents an opportunity for critical breakthroughs in methods and technologies for soil carbon sequestration and sustainable agricultural production.

“We’re talking about the ability to help mitigate climate change or make a plant grow and take up nutrients more efficiently,” she said. “This is a nature-based approach that can reduce the need for inputs like fertilizers and chemicals by creating and maintaining healthy soil microbial communities.”

The approach also represents a considerable tool to curb agriculture’s carbon footprint, Wang said. Around 25% of natural climate change mitigation potential is related to soil carbon, and research has shown microbial activity is a major contributor to carbon sequestration and exchanges.

Soil stores more carbon than the atmosphere and all plants combined. Microbes can also help pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Wang said. When plants take up carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, they release a large portion of that carbon into the soil, containing diverse carbon molecules. Soil microbial communities can turn them into forms of carbon that can stay in the soil longer.

Wang’s research focuses on the fundamentals of these complex processes like microbial carbon transformation that are still largely unknown. The goal is to identify the foundational characteristics, roles and signals between microbes and plants in soil environments. Much of her research so far has been in the laboratories and greenhouses, but Texas’ 1,300 soil types across 10 ecoregions will provide ample opportunities for field experimentation, she said.  

“This work is very interdisciplinary, so I am very excited about the diversity of soils and ecoregions and the fact that Texas A&M AgriLife has 13 research centers spread across the state,” she said. “There is a lot of room for collaboration with faculty, from the soil side to the crop side, and it all connects back to soil, plant and human health.”

Joseph Edwards searches for plant-soil symbiosis

Photo of Joseph Edwards, Ph.D. He is wearing a plaid shirt. He is wearing black gloves and he is holding a plant sample.
Joseph Edwards, Ph.D., joins the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology. (Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife)

Edwards’ research in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology will be similarly focused on soil microbiomes, but also the plant-microbiota relationships that can benefit both. Root microbiomes and understanding the complexities of how they benefit plants by displacing pathogens or increasing nutrient mineralization is the broad view of his scientific interests.

But he is also particularly interested in how plant genetics could enhance the beneficial interactions with microbes.

“There may be 10,000 or so different microbes that belong to a community,” he said. “But what drives that composition, how do they work together, and what drives them to do what they do? I am interested in how we can breed plants to promote beneficial interactions with soil microbes based on the genes that impact those communities.”

Edwards said the end goal is to find the combination of plant variety and soil microbial communities that make plants most resilient.

Edwards uses bacterial isolation cultures to identify microbes’ genomes. He establishes microbial communities under controlled conditions to isolate various strains, then puts them together to see how they interact. Experiments show whether interactions are cooperative, competitive or adversarial and how the plant responds to their activity under different scenarios. Scenarios might also involve a range of environmental factors, including stressors like drought or a lack of nitrogen.

Much of his recent work focused on switchgrass, a resilient native plant species that performs well in very marginal soils. Edwards wants to understand how microbial communities might give switchgrass an advantage over other plants when it comes to its requirements for critical nutrients like nitrogen or water.

But he is also eager to expand projects to other plants and systems, including a return to rice research, which was the focus of his doctorate work.

“I’m very interested in working with the folks at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Beaumont and the rice growers,” Edwards said. “Growers have had a tough time because of water restrictions, and so I hope to make an impact in how growers can get optimal performance when factors are suboptimal for their crops.”

Erick Motta links soil-plant-animal gut health

Photo of Erick Motta, Ph.D. He is wearing a plaid shirt with jeans and a black jacket.
Erick Motta, Ph.D., joins the Department of Entomology. (Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife Marketing and Communications)

Motta hopes to make similar contributions in the Department of Entomology by bridging the potential economic and environmental impacts Edwards and Wang expect from their research. His work focuses on how plants and other environmental factors translate to gut microbiomes in animals, specifically insects.

He hopes his work, which has primarily focused on bees, will answer basic questions and help establish foundational science on gut microbiomes.  

Bees are a good research model because they are social creatures like humans, Motta said. They acquire microbiomes through social interactions primarily, as well as through the environment they live in. Acquisition of microbes and exposure to substances in the environment, including in their food and water, all contribute to microbial communities and overall health.

Bees also allow Motta to analyze and scrutinize how various microbes, microbial community makeups, environmental factors and substances, including chemicals like antibiotics or herbicides, may impact microbial dynamics in individuals and colonies. Motta said that knowledge and understanding of microbial dynamics can be applied across ecological and agricultural systems and extrapolated to bigger organisms, including humans.

“I am excited for the opportunity to extend and expand my research program, but I also know collaborations are foundational to successful scientific projects,” he said. “Resource and data sharing, knowledge exchange, all strengthens what we do as individuals, so coming to an institution like Texas A&M, and alongside colleagues in related fields, is very exciting.”

Finding collaborative opportunities already

Motta is already finding other researchers, like Juliana Rangel, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Entomology and director of the Janice and John G. Thomas Honey Bee Facility at Texas A&M, are eager to collaborate. One of Rangel’s ongoing projects is focused on bee nutrition and the cascading effects diet has on bees’ development and health and ultimately the colony. Motta’s expertise in bee genomics and gut microbiomes should pair well with ongoing research.

Edwards and Motta have already collaborated on research. The research provided an opportunity to share resources, expertise and data that helped Motta and Edwards better understand the molecular basis of these microbial communities. Their projects are examples of “overlapping research” that Motta expects will be expanded as he and Edwards and Wang interact with each other, within their respective departments and beyond.

“We all have well-established research programs, and we have our own expertise, but I think we all understand the value conversations and collaboration add to what we are trying to achieve and the impacts we hope to make,” Motta said.

Cluster hire setting up for success, impacts

Bringing these experts together as a cohort will also help them settle into their respective departments and engage with faculty, Klein said. It opens the cohort to internal networking through events like monthly Faculty Affairs lunches and engagement with mentoring committee members.

“They want to make an impact, and we want to support their efforts in as many ways as possible, whether in their roles as researchers, faculty or mentors,” Klein said. “The goal is to make sure we’re setting them up for success, and we think bringing them in together can make a difference.”

Klein said research overlap and collaboration will also be a potential advantage for Wang, Motta and Edwards as they seek competitive grants. A team of scientists that spans soil-plant-insect expertise is much more competitive for funding from the National Science Foundation or U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Establishing good foundations for their respective programs could also translate into broader learning and mentoring opportunities for postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. Klein sees potential opportunities for developing course modules that introduce graduate students to the links between soil, plant and animal microbiota.

Edwards, Motta and Wang continue to establish their labs, recruit and interview graduate and postdoctoral researchers, and get to know faculty in and beyond their respective departments. The trio are keenly aware of the immense opportunities for Texas A&M to impact scientific understanding of microbiomes and discover innovative solutions to global food, health and environmental challenges.

“It’s a very exciting time to be involved in the study of microbiomes because of the broad implications of the field,” Motta said. “From my perspective, joining the department alongside scientists from other departments who are working in related fields makes being at Texas A&M that much more exciting. I think my new colleagues would agree.”

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