Stan Faeth | UNCG Biology Department Head

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Research in Faeth Lab

Our research is broadly defined as population and community ecology. We study the ecology and evolution of species interactions. Within this context, our research program is two-prong.

Plant-Fungus-Herbivore-Natural Enemy Interactions

First, we focus on the ecology and evolution of plant-fungi-herbivore-natural enemy interactions. These complex interactions are viewed within the context of coevolutionary and community ecology theory. Our research group studies how these interactions vary from parasitic to mutualistic over time and in different environments contingent upon host and symbiont genotypes. Through field, laboratory and greenhouse experiments, and molecular methods, we examine the role of endophytic fungi (asymptomatic fungal infections within plants) in mediating interactions among host plants and their invertebrate and vertebrate herbivores, plant competitors, and seed predators. Endophytic fungi are found in all plants and generally most plant tissues. They often radically alter the phenotype of their host plants by changing morphological, physiological and chemical properties. In cool season grasses, some of these endophytes are vertically-transmitted in the seeds of the grass and thus fungus and host grass fitness are closely linked.

We test how varying ecological selective pressures, such as herbivory, plant competition, fire, drought, and nutrients, maintain or sabotage mutualistic interactions between endophytic fungi and plants. Despite their miniscule biomass, fungal endophytes often have reverberating effects via host plant physiology, host population dynamics, community and trophic structure and ecosystem processes. Because endophytic fungi are found in all plants and often have unusual biological properties, there is ample opportunity for applications in agriculture, medicine and conservation biology. Indeed, we collaborate with Drs. Nadja Cech and Nick Oberlies in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to isolate endophytic fungi and their unusual metabolites to better improve the efficacy of medicinal plants.

Urban Ecology

The second prong of our research program is urban ecology. We study how urbanization influences plant, bird and arthropod diversity and how trophic structure of plant-herbivore-natural enemy communities changes in human-dominated environments. Because urbanization is the most rapidly expanding land use and habitat type worldwide, with broad footprints far beyond city boundaries, it has become increasing critical to understanding how urbanization and suburbanization influence biological diversity, communities, trophic dynamics and ecosystem services. In turn, we investigate how these ecological changes feed back to human values and well-being and individual and institutional decision-making. We use long-term monitoring of key biological groups and experimental manipulations to address these questions.