Soil biodiversity, bodily perception, plant genetics at AAAS

AAAS logo

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), taking place Feb. 11-15 in Washington, D.C., will include CSU researchers sharing the latest from their laboratories, and exciting up-and-coming trends in their fields. The world’s largest general scientific society, AAAS brings together thousands of scientists, engineers, policymakers, educators and journalists to discuss recent developments in science and technology.

Understanding, protecting life in the soil

As part of this year’s Global Science Engagement theme, University Distinguished Professor Diana Wall, professor of biology and founding director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES), will emphasize the urgent need to understand and protect life in the soil during the symposium “Global Soil Biodiversity: A Common Ground for Sustainability” on Feb. 14.

With living soils forming the basic interface of food production, clean air, clean water and ultimately human health, the biodiversity of soil is crucial to ecosystem functions, including the storage of carbon, nutrient cycling and pest regulation. Yet these organisms are being threatened around the world as soils are degraded from development and unsustainable usage.

Wall, a soil ecologist who specializes in soil roundworms, or nematodes, will discuss how recent research has accelerated and revealed the hidden world beneath our feet.

Wall and colleagues have urged alternative approaches for land use and management to optimize soil biodiversity. This includes cover cropping, agroforestry and conservation tillage, which can then promote nutrient supply, water infiltration and soil structure.

The panel will be moderated by Tandra Fraser, executive director of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative (GSBI), with the secretariat housed with SoGES at CSU. Wall will be joined on the panel by Johan Six of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology — a CSU alum, with a doctorate in soil science – and Jeffrey Herrick of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Later in the day, Wall will unveil the first-ever Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas that explores soil organisms and their habitats, what they do, major threats to their functioning and possible interventions to protect soil biodiversity, among other topics. That event will be sponsored by the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, founded by a group of soil scientists from around the world.

How the body shapes the mind

Also on Feb. 14, CSU’s Jessica Witt, associate professor of cognitive psychology in the College of Natural Sciences, will join a AAAS panel on “How the Body Shapes the Mind.” The panelists will delve into the notion that mental lives are profoundly shaped by bodily interactions with the environment.

Witt and two researchers from the University of Chicago, Daniel Casasanto and Sian Beilock, will discuss how the use of our bodies can influence important aspects of the way we understand our world: how we see the world (our perceptions); how we think and feel about the world (our thoughts and emotions); and how we learn about the world (our understanding of physics). This symposium also examines how each of these processes is implemented in our brains, and how neural models of emotions and abstract concepts must change as a consequence. Finally, the symposium will also explore the relevance of these findings for clinical practice and classroom teaching.

Witt’s area of research is in human perception shaping a person’s ability to act within his or her environment. For example, her experiments have shown that hills appear steeper and distances appear farther to people who lack fitness, or are fatigued. Similarly, baseballs appear bigger to batters who are hitting better than others.

Witt will deliver a second talk on her research for AAAS “Family Science Days,” a K-12-friendly showcase featuring exhibits, “cool science jobs,” and Q and A’s with scientists.

Plant genetic diversity

Other CSU researchers have played key roles in shaping AAAS’ agenda this year. Patrick Byrne, professor of soil and crop sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences, was the organizer of the panel, “Unlocking Plant Genetic Diversity for Food and Nutritional Security.” Co-organized with Ann Mari Thro of the USDA and Wayne Smith of Texas A & M University, the panel will feature remarks from Paula Bramel of The Crop Trust; Chiedozie Egesi of the Nigerian National Root Crops Research Institute; and Walter Trevisan of the Genetic Enhancement of Maize Project.

Taking place Feb. 13, the session will address how plant genetic diversity can help solve the food problems of a burgeoning global population. The symposium will review the status of crop genetic diversity worldwide, including the international system in place to conserve plant germplasm collections. A key theme will be the integration of plant breeding and genomics-derived technologies.

Byrne, whose research comprises quantitative and molecular genetics for crop improvement, calls genetic diversity “the raw material from which progress is made in plant breeding.” New vulnerabilities and disease strains are introduced at a rapid pace to agricultural systems worldwide, including wheat rust and maize lethal necrosis, and climate change will introduce further need for plants with higher drought tolerance, Byrne said.

Ag, food, renewable resources

Daniel Bush, a plant biologist in the College of Natural Sciences and CSU’s vice provost for faculty affairs, is secretary of the AAAS section on Agriculture, Food and Renewable Resources, and played a role in selecting the symposia this year.