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Researcher Spotlight: Katy Heath, Ph.D.

With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce its readers to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. Katy Heath, PhD, is an associate professor of Plant Biology in the School of Integrative Biology and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. Research in the Heath Lab for Coevolutionary Genomics focuses on the evolution of mutualisms, which are most generally defined as species interactions that increase the fitness of both (or all) partners.

What is your research in microbial systems about?

I study the evolutionary genetics of plant-microbe symbiosis, focusing on mutually-beneficial interactions (mutualisms) that increase the performance of both partners. We ask questions about how natural selection acts on both species in a mutualism, the genes and molecular pathways underlying the evolution of important mutualism traits, and how the evolution of mutualisms varies across space and through time. We are also interested in how mutualisms evolve in response to various global changes. Our main focal system is the symbiosis between leguminous plants (like soybeans, peas, lentils) and nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria called rhizobia. This mutualism is super important in natural systems as well as agricultural systems, where it produces high-protein legume crops and improves soil fertility for all crops. We also have projects on plant-fungal interactions, fungal-fungal interactions, and plant evolution.

How are you conducting your research?

We integrate a lot of different techniques, from fieldwork and experimental manipulations in natural populations to genomics and transcriptomics to integrate natural variation at the molecular level with natural variation in phenotypic traits. Ultimately we’re trying to build an understanding of how plants and their microbial symbionts evolve, or coevolve, from the molecular level to the geographic metapopulation scale. That goal will keep me busy for years to come!

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Publication Date: 11/12/2019