Stinson Receives a 2019 Project of the Year Award

garlic mustard
Garlic Mustard

Plant ecologist Kristina Stinson, environmental conservation, and her team were recently honored by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) with one of its 2019 Project of the Year Awards for Resource Conservation and Resiliency, given at an annual symposium in Washington, D.C.

The agency’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program recognizes “scientific advances and technological solutions to some of DoD’s most significant environmental and installation energy challenges.”

She says, “When we started this project, the technology for sequencing the soil microbiome was just emerging.  We literally had to update our methods section multiple times throughout the proposal-writing process because the techniques were changing so fast. It’s very exciting to have been involved in this research and to have discovered how a small unassuming invasive plant can up-end the identities and abundances of soil fungi and their roles in ecosystem function.”  

DoD’s citation relates that for this study, Stinson with her colleague Serita Frey of the University of New Hampshire (UNH), with others, examined the interactive effects of biological invasion and other global change factors on the diversity of soil fungi of Northeastern forest habitats, with a focus on management implications for forests disrupted by the invasive garlic mustard.

Stinson notes that several graduate students and postdocs were involved in the research, including Mark Anthony of UNH, plus Jason Aylward, Erin Coates-Connor, Adam Trautwig, Michelle Jackson and Julia Wheeler of UMass Amherst.

DoD reports, “The project resulted in significant and important findings. This is the first study to document impacts of garlic mustard on soil microbes with such high molecular resolution and at a broad landscape scale. The research team determined that climatic warming has the potential to promote garlic mustard invasion and negatively impact tree seedling performance.”

As Stinson and Frey explain, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is “a textbook example of a plant that can overwhelm a landscape.” It has rapidly become a problem in North America, forming dense monocultures that allow it to invade forests and threaten native plant community diversity, they point out. Further, it reduces native plant diversity through competition for resources and through the chemical suppression of beneficial fungal symbioses.

For their study, they visited more than 15 New England sites from Boston to the Berkshires and southward into the Catskills of New York, eventually settling on eight with active garlic mustard invasion and with different nitrogen deposition rates. This allowed them to observe landscape-level variation in the soil ecological responses to invasion and eradication.