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Studying Mysteries of the Microbiome

Stephanie Kivlin studies very small organisms to learn about very big issues.

Kivlin, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, focuses on ecosystem ecology, microbial ecology, and global change.

“I am interested in how microbiomes of plants can help them grow better and in turn how that allows the plants to withstand climate change,” she said.

In fact, she said, microbiomes—communities of microscopic organisms, including fungi and bacteria—play “an outsized role in climate change.”

Growing up on a farm in Texas, Kivlin has always loved plants and science. As a first-generation college student, she earned her bachelor’s degree in microbiology and Ecology, Evolution, & Behavior at the University of Texas, Austin. A faculty mentor, also a first-generation college student, invited her to work in her lab and that’s where Kivlin discovered the amazing world of organisms seen only through a microscope.

Because of her farm roots, Kivlin was fascinated with the idea that microbes in the soil could be used to help increase crop yields and allow farmers to depend less heavily on chemical fertilizers. And she was intrigued that microscopic organisms hold a key to mediating the effects of climate change.

Kivlin delved further into these ideas as she earned her doctorate at the University of California, Irvine.

She came to UT Knoxville in 2018 after spending several years as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas and the University of New Mexico.

A 2021 recipient of a mid-year career research award from the college, Kivlin is currently involved in several major projects funded by the National Science Foundation and the US Departments of Energy and Agriculture.

For example, she is a co-principal investigator on a multi-million dollar NSF-funded research project that looks at an invasive plant species called garlic mustard. The plant produces toxins that kill underground microbes which, subsequently, kill other native plants dependent upon those microbes. By studying the whole spectrum—from molecules to ecosystems—Kivlin and her team hope to gain a greater understanding of how ecosystems recover after being hit by a “disrupter,” be it the introduction of an invasive species or a natural disaster, such as a drought.

She’s also the principal investigator on a three-year, $997,000 Department of Energy study that looks at how climate change can “decouple” microbiomes and the plants that depend on them. Working at a field site in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, her research team has been using heaters and tarp ground covers to make the snow melt sooner in the spring and delay the snowpack from forming so soon in the fall, thus altering the growing season by several weeks to mimic a possible effect of climate change. They are studying how plants and the microbiome react to these environmental cues and if this climatic disruption changes the relationships between the plants and their underground microbial partners.

As a teacher, Kivlin hopes—at a minimum—students leave her class understanding that microbes exist and climate change is happening.

As a researcher in awe of her subject matter, she’s even happier when she can share her enthusiasm with students who want to delve deeper.

“Anyone who asks me to work in my lab, I will let them,” she said. “Students often don’t know what working in a lab means and that you can find a passion there. Without that kind of experience (as a college student), I wouldn’t be here.

“That’s part of what’s exciting about this job, too,” she said. “You can help create a future for students where they didn’t know it existed.”

Story by Amy Blakely