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Boise State Receives Share of $6 Million to Understand, Manage Resistance to Toxins

Female grouse foraging in snow
Photo by Alan H. Krakauer

Two Boise State University researchers, in collaboration with colleagues in Nevada and Wyoming, have secured a $6 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to predict and manage the interactions between toxic plants and the animals that consume these plants.

Jennifer Sorensen Forbey and Eric Hayden, associate professors in the Department of Biological Sciences at Boise State, will help lead the project, titled “Genomes Underlying Toxin Tolerance,” known as GUTT.  The GUTT team will reveal how herbivores and their gut microbes tolerate defensive toxins produced by the wild plants they consume.

Increased understanding of plant toxins and herbivore tolerance is important for a variety of people — conservation biologists who manage native plants and herbivores, the ranching and agricultural community that rely on plants to feed livestock and rely on chemicals to defend crops from pests, and the medical community that relies on plant-derived chemicals to manage human health, Forbey said.

A better understanding of plant-herbivore systems requires the expertise of many scientists with different specializations who will advance science and education by cooperating across state boundaries. To accomplish this, the GUTT team will integrate genomics, chemistry, physiology, evolution, microbiology, population ecology, and modeling expertise in Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming to identify how variation in toxin tolerance influences the physiology, behavior and population dynamics of wild mammalian and avian herbivores.

In addition, the team will work with high school teachers and use Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences in introductory biology, chemistry and math courses to train, inspire, recruit and retain a diverse workforce capable of applying genetic understanding of toxin tolerance in animals and microbes to conservation, agriculture and human health. The research and educational activities will grow capacity for Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming faculty, students and community partners to more effectively manage toxic plants and the animals and microbes that interact with these plants.

The team will leverage the expertise and facilities at established research institutes and centers in three states: the Biomolecular Research Center at Boise State, the Center for Modelling Complex Interactions at the University of Idaho, the William Judson Boone Science Center and Harold M. Tucker Herbarium at the College of Idaho and the Northwest Knowledge Network in Idaho; The Animal Nutrition and Microbiology Laboratory, the Nevada Genomics Center, the Nevada Bioinformatics Center, the Mick Hitchcock Nevada Proteomics Center, and the Hitchcock Chemical Ecology Center in Nevada; the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center, the NCAR Wyoming Supercomputing Center, the UW Agricultural Experimental Station, the Ellbogen Center for Teaching and Learning and the Science and Mathematics Teaching Center in Wyoming.

The GUTT project expands research, teaching and leadership capacity at five institutions across three states, including two predominantly undergraduate institutions: College of Idaho and College of Western Idaho. The GUTT Workforce Development plan leverages leaders in innovative research and transferable educational practices to build inclusive research and education capacity for 18 early career faculty that represent marginalized groups in science. The training programs will help Western states and our agency partners increase participation from underserved populations, low-income, rural and/or first-generation college students and women through diversity programs, citizen science and outreach.

In addition to Forbey and Hayden, the scientific leadership team includes Marjorie Matocq, professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science and Lora Richards, assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Nevada Reno; Rongsong Liu, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and Department of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming; Carolyn Dadabay in the Department of Chemistry at College of Idaho.