NE1602: Explorations in the Turfgrass Phytobiome: Understanding Microbial Associations and Developing Tools for Management

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active



Turfgrasses encompass many facets of everyday life through use in home lawns, commercial landscapes and parks, roadsides, athletic fields, golf courses and sod farms. While these aspects provide social benefit as a surface for exercise and recreation, the turfgrass sector also has a valuable economic impact through employment opportunities in the green industry, commerce, economic development, tax revenue for communities, and increased home values. In a 2002 study conducted by scientists at the University of Florida, the industry generated over 820,000 jobs in the U.S., with an estimated economic footprint of nearly $58 billion. A more recent survey estimates the economic impact of the golf industry alone at nearly $70 billion per year, so the overall influence of the industry has clearly increased in the past decade. In addition to the social and economic impacts, the extensive network of above- and below-ground turfgrass tissues have many environmental benefits including, dust and dirt removal from air, reduced soil erosion, surface water filtration, carbon sequestration, oxygen production, and heat, glare, and noise reduction. Furthermore, turfgrass areas are home to a variety of microorganisms and insects while golf courses, landscapes, and parks provide habitats to support numerous wildlife species.

The breadth of environmental benefits are best realized in well-managed, healthy turfgrass stands. Like all plants, turfgrasses are subject to abiotic and biotic stressors that require regular cultural, and sometimes chemical, management actions to ensure turf performance. Some examples of cultural management practices include irrigation, fertilization, and mowing while chemical management includes application of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. Integrated pest management (IPM) includes a combination of cultural and chemical management practices that limits destructive insects, pathogens and weed species while also limiting the non-target economic and environmental impacts of such practices. Turfgrass scientists are constantly researching new management tactics to produce healthy turfgrass stands with fewer inputs and environmental consequences by developing improved grass varieties, fertilization schedules, and new pesticides with fewer non-target effects. At the same time, an emerging trend among some state and local governments is legislation restricting the use of pesticides, water and some fertilizers inputs on turfgrass areas. These new laws eliminate important tools for maintaining healthy turfgrass stands, and require practitioners to rely on less well known strategies for nutrient and pest management. This legislation has resulted in an increased interest among turfgrass managers for research to better understand effective organic and pesticide-free management approaches. A related area of growing research interest involves understanding and developing applications in the turfgrass phytobiome. Defined as the microbial community that resides both on and within a turfgrass plant, the phytobiome can encompass many different species including archaea, bacteria, fungi, oomycetes, nematodes, and viruses. Previous research shows individuals and groups within the microbial community have strong interactions with plants and can significantly impact plant health through cell-to-cell signaling, plant defense, and physiological development. By furthering our knowledge of these complex interactions, we hope to foster beneficial plant-microbe relationships and reduce our reliance on fresh water, synthetic fertilizers and pesticide inputs necessary to maintain acceptable turfgrass stands.

With the advent and improvement in next-generation sequencing technologies, the ability to explore entire microbial communities has advanced significantly in recent years. Phytobiome research is growing with new projects being initiated in many plant science disciplines. As with any burgeoning research area, difficulties exist in developing technologies and understanding the wealth of data that comes with microbial community analysis. As we venture into this new research area, members of the turfgrass scientific community must collaborate to develop standardized research methods for phytobiome study. One certainty is that the phytobiome composition is impacted by many factors including, but not limited to, environment, plant host, and management inputs. However, our knowledge of how each of these inputs directly impacts different species is limited and indicates the need to initiate research in this area. Members of our proposed research group encompass multiple disciplines within turfgrass science and offer the necessary expertise to answer critical questions and advance this area of turfgrass management. Research generated within the turfgrass phytobiome will ultimately improve our knowledge of plant-microbe interactions, translating into improved turfgrass varieties and effective biocontrol strategies for limiting pathogen development. Providing a group forum to develop and share research ideas will broaden our ability to understand the complex relationships among microbial communities within turfgrass systems. Collaborative efforts will ultimately improve our ability to extend research results to turf practitioners in the field and develop applications to harness the full power of the turfgrass phytobiome.

Need for project as indicated by stakeholders:

In June 2015, a symposium on turfgrass phytobiomes was sponsored by The Grass Roots Initiative for Turfgrass Science and held at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. This meeting was held in conjunction with ‘Phytobiomes 2015: Designing a New Paradigm for Crop Improvement’, which was sponsored by USDA-NIFA, NSF, APS, US-DOE, Bayer Crop Science, the Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation, and the U.S. Forest Service. Priority topics discussed in the turfgrass symposium included: (1) developing standardized research methods for applications in the turfgrass phytobiome, (2) providing an open source database for housing and analyzing metagenomic data generated from turfgrass phytobiome research, and (3) developing outreach methods to educate turf practitioners on future phytobiome applications. Moreover, from ongoing discussions with industry professionals, we know that turfgrass practitioners are increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of turfgrass management and are eager to utilize new methods to jointly promote the health of the turfgrass plant and the surrounding ecosystem. Numerous ongoing conversations with lawn care operators, golf course superintendents, and sports field managers has shown great interest in learning how the microbial community can provide practical benefits for turfgrass management, and potentially reduce the need for fresh water, fertilizers and pesticide inputs. These industry practitioners are committed to promoting environmental stewardship through developing sustainable management practices, which will be further improved with applications in the turfgrass phytobiome.

Importance of work and consequences if not done:

Research in phytobiomes is growing rapidly across the field of plant science on the whole. However, previous work has shown that there is a urgent need to formulate standardized research methods and share common resources. If the proposed research project on turfgrass phytobiome development is not conducted, consequences could include: (1) further reliance on natural resources and pesticide inputs to effectively manage turfgrass pests, (2) increased potential for turf loss due to environmental stressors, weed and disease development particularly where legislation restricts management inputs (3) continued potential for non-target effects associated with traditional management strategies to control turfgrass pests, and (4) loss of function and revenue among all sectors of the turfgrass industry through widespread turf failure due to restricted use of management inputs. From a scientific standpoint, the proposed standardization and sharing of common resources will allow for more rapid improvements to be translated into the field. Without a common, standardized and shared platform, research efforts may be duplicated, opportunities to share information will not exist, research efforts will proceed at a slower rate, and our ability to translate data into stakeholder deliverables will be hindered.

Technical Feasibility:

Scientists currently involved in developing the proposed research projects bring together diverse set of skills and expertise. Members of the group offer expertise in bacteriology, bioinformatics, breeding, agronomy, mycology, plant pathology, and plant physiology. In addition to the scientific expertise offered by group members, many offer valuable experience in outreach through successful careers in extension. The technical ability offered by all individuals in the research group will lead to a successful research project and offer results for developing future applications within the turfgrass phytobiome.

Advantages of a multi-state effort:

Many turfgrass species are utilized throughout the various geographic regions in the U.S. Diverse environments and climates require use of these differing adapted species, and also subject them to a wide range of abiotic and biotic stressors including soil type, temperature extremes, bacteria, fungi, and insect pests. Developing projects across geographically diverse regions will enhance our understanding of the microbial communities that inhabit turfgrasses, as previous research has illustrated the significant impact environment can have on these communities. While diverse scientists encompass our group, this research project will facilitate exchange of knowledge and research techniques. Moreover, the results generated from this work will provide the framework for future research developing applications in the turfgrass phytobiome. Ultimately, applications developed within the turfgrass phytobiome will be a fundamental component of integrated pest management and plant health programs. Using this approach, we can come together to manage turfgrass using sustainable practices that reduce our reliance on fresh water resources, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticide inputs while still producing functional and aesthetically pleasing golf courses, landscapes, and home lawns. Project members will communicate research results to industry practitioners through regional and national seminars, symposia, peer-reviewed publications, research field days, and web-based platforms.

Anticipated Impacts:

Advances in understanding the microbiome of the human gut has had far reaching impacts in gastrointestinal health and transformed the field of personalized medicine. We anticipate that impacts from our study of the turfgrass phytobiome will be similarly transformative for the turfgrass industry, ultimately enabling a more predictive and systems-based approach in the management of turfgrass. Our research approach to studying the turfgrass phytobiome involves a series of interdependent projects across multiple environments and will provide a basis for turfgrass research in this growing area. The microbial composition of the turfgrass phytobiome will be classified at a higher level, allowing researchers to pinpoint candidates for plant health promotion and subsequent future research. Moreover, the effects of cultural and chemical inputs on the turfgrass phytobiome will be elucidated, and stewardship of this microbial resource will be communicated to turfgrass managers. The project will bring together researchers from diverse backgrounds and result in improved exchange of information between turfgrass agronomists, plant pathologists, computer scientists, bioinformaticians, and breeders. In our attempts to improve turfgrass management through applications in the phytobiome, it is imperative that outreach projects are effectively constructed to educate practitioners. New management concepts can be met with apprehension and confusion, but the strong extension experience offered by project participants will ensure dissemination of research results in a manner that practitioners can use, be it on golf courses, home lawns, or athletic fields. Social media and web-based tools are popular within all sectors of the turfgrass industry as a means to communicate ideas, local trends, and even management tools. With this in mind, a website will be developed in an effort to provide the most up to date information on the proposed project, along with research descriptions and a forum for questions related to our research. In addition to web-based tools, collaborations and independent work amongst the group will be broadcast through peer-reviewed publications, seminars at national meetings, research field days, and trade journal publications. Opportunities to share findings with the general public through mass media will also be sought. Continued updates will help to spread new research concepts, promote our research goals, and ultimately provide new tools for practitioners that are effective and environmentally friendly. Applications developed through our collaborative effort will result in improved sustainable management practices for major biotic and abiotic stressors of turfgrasses managed in our respective regions and throughout the U.S. Turfgrass growers will be surveyed throughout our region in year 1 and 4 of this multistate project in an effort to evaluate project impacts.

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