UC Merced Connect: Pine needle bacteria research earns professor $1.6 million grant

Professor Carolin Frank will collect $1.6 million over the next four years to continue researching the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in pine needles and work with the Sierra Foothill Charter School, which she helped found.

The National Science Foundation selected Frank, of the School of Natural Sciences, and collaborators Lara Kueppers, Jennifer Pett-Ridge and Tanja Woyke at the Department of Energy’s national labs in Berkeley and Livermore, for its 4-year-old Dimensions of Biodiversity Award.

The honor and associated funding is designed to help fill gaps in understanding the many species of plants and animals on Earth. Scientists funded by the Dimensions of Biodiversity program integrate genetic, taxonomic and functional approaches in their study and exploration.

“This is huge,” Frank said. “It will allow me and my collaborators to work on this fascinating problem for the next few years. UC Merced is a great place to be doing interdisciplinary team science.”

In contrast to traditional biodiversity research that focuses on one taxonomic group or ecosystem, Dimensions of Biodiversity integrates multiple aspects into research projects.

The program links functional, genetic and phylogenetic-taxonomic dimensions of biodiversity, offering opportunities to make rapid advances in understanding the generation, maintenance and loss of biodiversity.

“This year’s portfolio of projects will accelerate our understanding of biodiversity across disciplines and across scales of time and space,” said Penny Firth, director of NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology. “Through this program, we’re witnessing a transformation in our ability to bridge scientific approaches and perspectives.”

The research will fill in gaps in biodiversity knowledge, Firth said. It also has the potential for significant effects on agriculture, fuel, manufacturing and health.

Dimensions of Biodiversity scientists are working to stem the tide of species losses around the world.

In the past few years, Frank and graduate student Alyssa Carrell discovered a novel symbiosis between pines and the bacteria inside their needles. Recently, Frank, Kueppers and postdoctoral fellow Andrew Moyes demonstrated that the bacteria, or endophytes, appear to fix atmospheric nitrogen.

That’s surprising, because until now, only bacteria associated with a few forest plants, such as legumes and alders, and free-living bacteria in soil were known to do this. Nitrogen is critical to plant growth and development.

Frank’s discovery could help solve an ecological mystery: Where does all the nitrogen in forests come from? “There’s more nitrogen in there than there should be, and these endophytes could be a previously ‘hidden’ source,” Frank said.

That could have huge implications for ecosystems and climate.

Reich to discuss income inequality

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, author, UC Berkeley professor of public policy and economic expert, is coming to Merced to show the film “Inequality for All” and take questions from the audience.

The event is sponsored by the university’s Office of the Chancellor and the Blum Center for Developing Economies.

“One of the greatest benefits of having a university in the area is its ability to spark diverse dialogues about some of the most pressing current issues,” Vice Chancellor for Research Sam Traina said. “We’re proud to sponsor events like this because they are opportunities for learning and growth. We certainly hope for a lively exchange of ideas.”

The event is designed to start a conversation about how the Valley can overcome the economic and social costs of income inequality. The Blum Center will work with community leaders throughout the region to catalyze innovations for greater economic prosperity.

Reich was President Bill Clinton’s labor secretary, and is the presenter in the film. He is a Blum Center trustee and senior fellow. Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the 20th century. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and the chancellor’s professor of public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.

The free event will be 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Merced Theater, 301 W. Main St. For more information, visit