Newswise — Kirsten Deane-Coe, assistant professor of biology for St. Mary’s College of Maryland, was awarded $130,079 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Dimensions of Biodiversity Program. She will be working with collaborators to investigate the drivers of diversity in an ecologically important clade of dryland mosses.

Syntrichia is a large and diverse genus of mosses occurring worldwide and generally in dryland habitats. Despite its dominance in certain communities such as biological soil crusts, surprisingly little is known about the drivers of biodiversity in this clade according to the grant proposal.

Deane-Coe is a physiological ecologist and has spent much of her career studying dryland mosses. She explained that mosses are the second most diverse group of land plants next to angiosperms (flowering plants), and they play important ecological roles in terrestrial ecosystems.

“My role on the grant is to lead research that helps us gain insight into the comparative physiology of these dryland mosses with regard to the trait of desiccation tolerance.”

This important trait – the capability to dry without dying – allows many mosses to survive and reproduce even in drylands and may be the key to their survival in the face of rapid climate change.

The overall goal of the project is to understand the evolutionary and ecological mechanisms that have produced and maintained diversity at different levels of organization (i.e. genes to ecosystems). The approach will include examining tradeoffs between asexual and sexual reproduction and between phenotypic plasticity and canalization into specialized genotypes.

“This is cutting edge research because my lab will be using novel imaging fluorescence techniques coupled with infrared gas analysis to examine variability in photosynthetic capacity in a diverse but understudied clade of dryland mosses,” says Deane-Coe. “We believe photosynthetic capacity under various hydration regimes directly relates to the degree of desiccation tolerance, a key trait that may give us insight into the drivers of biodiversity in these organisms.”

Deane-Coe is looking forward to the opportunity to involve students in the research, exposing them to unique organisms and plant physiology techniques they likely haven’t interacted with before.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland, designated the Maryland state honors college in 1992, is ranked one of the best public liberal arts schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Approximately 1,700 students attend the college, nestled on the St. Mary’s River in Southern Maryland.