Jim Coleman

Jim Coleman

Jim Coleman

Professor and Director of Graduate Studies
Fellow of the American Association of the Advancement of Science

304 Sullivan Building


Biogeochemical cycling of mercury in response to ecosystem disturbance, plant physiological ecology, plant-herbivore/plant-pathogen interactions, ecosystem ecology, plant and ecosystem responses to global environmental change, evolutionary ecology and evolutionary physiology of plant heat shock proteins


Ph.D., Yale University

Current Research and Research Contributions:

My current research focus is on the biogeochemical cycling of mercury in response to different silvicultural practices aimed at restoring longleaf pine ecosystems. With undergraduate students, we are also examining how longleaf pine seedlings respond to various environmental stresses and what that means for restoring longleaf pine stands.
This team includes Martin Tsz-Ki Tsui, Alex Chow, Carl Tretting, Yener Ulus and me. Earlier in my career, I was part of a team that used the mass balance capability of the EcoCELLs to trace the flux of mercury demonstrating that most mercury enters the ecosystem through leaf fall and on direct atmospheric deposition to soils (with Mae Gustin and Steve Lindbergh).  You can see a narrated powerpoint of our May 2022 presentation How does mercury methylation respond to intensive forest management and the creation of anoxia in floodplain soils?”  here: https://uncg.box.com/s/m3j1mwdnd49xy0iykx5whruvf9o04eml

How leaf and plant development affect leaf biochemistry and susceptibility to insects and pathogens.
Using eastern cottonwood as a model system, we (Clive Jones, Bill Smith (Yale) and I) integrated the tremendous work of Phil Larson, Richard Dickson and Jud Isebrands who detailed the synchrony of form and function in eastern cottonwood seedlings, cuttings and trees, including mapping the vasculature system and clearly showing the physiological, biochemical and anatomical changes that occur a leaf moves through it sink to source transition and then ages. We used this basic understanding to demonstrate the ability of leaf beetles, caterpillars and aphids to track leaf development age, and we demonstrated how the strength of vascular connections between different leaves strongly influenced whether an undamaged leaf would induce defensive chemicals when another leaf was damaged. We used  the knowledge of form and function relationships to examine whether environmental stress (using ozone as a model stress), changes plant chemistry and leaf development in such a way that it would change the susceptibility of plants to four different “pests” that feed in different ways and thus change the dynamics of the of insect and fungal pathogen community. We studied a leaf beetle that eats leaf tissue; an aphid that draws phloem fluid, a rust fungus which feeds from living cells, and a leaf spot fungus that only feed after cells have been killed. These data led Clive Jones and I to create what we called a “phytocentric perspective” of plant responses herbivores. I am currently revising a draft paper that describes a link between leaf development with patterns and phenology of leaf production in trees  (indeterminate vs. determinate) to life history and ecological traits of herbivores and pathogens in their community,  such as the likelihood of having insects with multiple generations/yr or those that experience boom or bust outbreaks. We also determined that it matters a great deal whether insects feed on the tip or the base of an expanding leaf with respect to interpreting how much biomass was eaten by the area of missing tissues- damage on the tip of expanding leaves will end up being around 10x the actual amount eaten, whereas damage to the base will results in roughly equal damage and estimates of amount eaten

How plants allocate carbon and nutrients to roots, shoots, storage and reproduction in response to environmental stress. 
We (Kelly McConnaughay and I)  examined the importance of plant development and size dependency in interpreting whether adjustments in resource allocation (e.g., root:shoot ratio; N concentration in tissues) in plants to stressful environments follows the hypotheses of optimal partitioning, ontogenetic drift, or both. We tested whether data that supported optimal partitioning resulted from comparing traits of plants at a common age as opposed to at a common size.  Plants often develop as a function of their size, and not necessarily their age. Therefore, if one compares plant traits at a common time of a control vs. a stressed plant, then one will be measuring plants of different sizes because the control plant is likely to be bigger than the stressed plant. In such cases, any differences demonstrated in plant traits for plants of different sizes could be due to ontogenetic drift (the allometric relationships between different plant parts as a plant gets bigger), and not necessarily due to adaptive strategies of plants in response to stress.

The role of low molecular weight heat shock proteins in protecting plants from heat stress and their evolutionary ecology.
We (Scott Heckathorn, Craig Downs, and Tom Sharkey) were the first laboratory to demonstrate that low molecular weight chloroplast heat shock proteins protect photosystem II from heat stress. We started this work by examining the physiological cost to plants of making heat shock proteins, and whether that cost helps shape the pattern and amount of heat shock proteins produced by a single species within populations that are more or less adapted to experience acute heat stress. We also examined whether such differences correlated with the environment in which different species evolved.  We also demonstrated that there is resource cost (particularly N) to making low and high molecular weight heat shock proteins.

How plants and ecosystems respond to rising carbon dioxide levels along with changing precipitation and deposition of nutrients and pollutants associated with climate change.
The Desert FACE (Free-air CO2 enrichment) site,  taught us (the main PIs were me, Stan Smith, Jeff Seemann, Bob Nowak, Jay Arnone, Yiqi Luo, Wexin Cheng, Paul Verburg, Dani Obrist, Tim Ball,  Dave Evans and Dale Johnson) a great deal about how elevated carbon dioxide affects photosynthesis,  ecosystem productivity, carbon cycling and carbon storage, invasive species, soil water and water use efficiency, and the role of the microbial crust that covers the desert floor. Laboratory experiments taught us a lot about closing the carbon cycle, the response of net ecosystem productivity over several years in response to one unusually warmer year, and the full carbon, nutrient and water fluxes and storage of ecosystems in response to elevated carbon dioxide using a nationally unique large mass balance mesocosm facility (EcoCELLs)  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_nYbGfU20c). The EcoCell work on the lagged response of soil respiration to an anomalously warm year was on the cover of Nature in 2008.)

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Grant Awards (PI, Co-PI or administrative PI for over $260 million in grants and contracts).

  • Department of Energy, Office of Science, How does mercury methylation respond to intensive forest management and the creation of anoxia in floodplain soils? $132,285 (I am the PI who took over for Dr. Martin Tsui, with Co-PIs Alex Chow (Clemson) and Carl Trettin (US.Forest Service). 9/1/2020 -8/30/2023
  • National Science Foundation, Division of Earth Sciences, Collaborative Proposal: Response of mercury cycling to disturbance and restoration of low gradient forested watersheds. $164,740. 8/1/2019-7/31/2024. I am the PI (took over for Martin Tsui)
  • United States Department of Agriculture- NIFA, Storage, Reactivity, and Bioavailability of Mercury in Managed Forests – Balancing Mercury Toxicity and Wildfire Risks through Effective Fuel Reduction Techniques. $139,876 to UNCG. 2019-2023. (I am the UNCG PI, taking over for Martin Tsui. Alex Chow is the PI from Clemson University)
  • Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research, Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation (co-led with Joe Steinmetz, Stacy Leeds, Dan Sui and Laura Jacobs), $194.7million. 2020-2025 (from my time at Arkansas) 2020-2025

Representative Publications:

Administrative perspective:

  • Sui, D. and J. Coleman. 2020. Convergence Research in the Age of Big Data: Team Science, Institutional Strategies, and Beyond. Merrill Advanced Studies Center Report 123:23-35. 

Plant resource allocation 

  • Ackerly, D.D., S.A. Dudley, S.E. Sultan, J. Schmitt, J.S. Coleman, R. Linder, D.R. Sandquist, M.A. Geber, A.S. Evans, T.E. Dawson and M.J. Lechowicz. 2000. The evolution of plant ecophysiological traits: Recent advances and future directions. BioScience 50: 979-995.
  • McConnaughay, K.D.M. and J.S. Coleman. 1999. Biomass allocation in plants: ontogeny or optimality? A test along three resource gradients. Ecology 80: 2581-2593.
  • Gedroc, J.J., K.D.M. McConnaughay, and J.S. Coleman. 1996. Plasticity in root/shoot partitioning: optimal, ontogenetic, or both? Functional Ecology 10: 44-50.
  • Coleman, J.S., K.D. M. McConnaughay and D.D. Ackerly. 1994. Interpreting phenotypic variation in plants. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 9: 187-191.

Global change, plants and ecosystems

  • Arnone, J.A. III, P.S.J. Verburg, D.W. Johnson, J.D. Larsen, R.L. Jasoni, A.J. Lucchesi, C.M. Batts, C. von Nagy, W.G. Coulombe, D.E. Schorran, P.E. Buck, B.H. Braswell, J.S. Coleman, R.A. Sherry, L.L. Wallace, Y. Luo and D.S. Schimel. 2008. Prolonged suppression of ecosystem carbon dioxide uptake after an anomalously warm year. Nature 455:383-386.
  • Ericksen, J.A., M.S. Gustin, D.S. Schorran, D.W. Johnson, S.E. Lindberg and J.S. Coleman. 2003. Accumulation of atmospheric mercury by forest foliage. Atmospheric Environment 37: 1613-1622.
  • Smith, S.D., T.E. Huxman, S. F. Zitzer, T.N. Charlet, D.C. Housman, J. S. Coleman, L. K. Fenstermaker, J.R. Seemann, and R.S. Nowak. 2000 Elevated CO2 increases productivity and invasive species success in an arid ecosystem. Nature 408: 79-82.
  • Taub, D., J.R. Seemann, and J.S. Coleman. 2000, Growth at elevated CO2 protects photosynthesis from damage by high temperature. Plant, Cell and Environment 23: 649- 656.

Plant heat shock proteins

  • Barua, D., S.A. Heckathorn, J.S. Coleman. 2008. Variation in heat-shock proteins and photosynthetic thermotolerance among natural populations of Chenopodium album L. from contrasting thermal environments: implications for plant responses to global warming. Journal of Integrative Plant Biology: 50: 1440-1451.
  • Heckathorn, S.A., C.A. Downs, T.D. Sharkey and J.S. Coleman. 1998. A small chloroplast heat-shock protein protects photosystem II during heat stress. Plant Physiology 116: 439- 444.
  • Coleman, J.S., S.A. Heckathorn and R.L. Hallberg. 1995. Heat shock proteins and thermotolerance: Linking ecological and molecular perspectives. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10: 305-306. 

Plant-Herbivore interactions

  • Wait, D.A., C.G. Jones, J.S. Coleman and M. Schaedle. 1998. Effects of nitrogen fertilization on leaf chemistry and beetle feeding are mediated by changes in leaf development. Oikos: 82: 502-514.
  • Coleman, J.S. and A.S. Leonard. 1995. Why it matters where on a leaf a folivore feeds. Oecologia 101: 324-328.
  • Jones, C.G., R.F. Hopper, J.S. Coleman, and V.A. Krischik. 1993. Plant vasculature controls the distribution of systemically induced defense against an herbivore. Oecologia 93: 452-456.
  • Coleman, J.S. and C.G. Jones. 1991. A phytocentric perspective of phytochemical induction by herbivores. In: D. Tallamy and M. Raupp (eds.). Phytochemical Induction by Herbivores. J. Wiley and Sons. pp. 3-45.
  • Coleman, J.S. 1986. Leaf development and leaf stress: increased susceptibility associated with sink-source transition. Tree Physiology 2: 289-299.
Biogeochemistry of mercury in forests
  • Ericksen, J.A., M.S. Gustin, D.S. Schorran, D.W. Johnson, S.E. Lindberg and J.S. Coleman. 2003. Accumulation of atmospheric mercury by forest foliage. Atmospheric Environment 37: 1613-1622.
  • Gustin, M.S., J.A. Ericksen, D.E. Schorran, D.W. Johnson, S.E. Lindberg, J.S. Coleman. 2004. Application of controlled mesocosms for understanding mercury air-soil-plant exchange. Environmental Science and Technology 38: 6044-6050


  • Coleman, J.S. (2022) Considering Equality and Equity in Biology Instruction. American Biology Teacher: in press


  • The Biosphere (BIO 431)
  • Evolution (BIO 330)
  • Plant Physiological Ecology (BIO 449/648)
  • Environmental Health Science I: ecosystems to organisms (BIO 731)
  • Research Lab Rotations (BIO 749)
  • Undergraduate Research (BIO 499)