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Ember Morrissey

image of Ember working in the lab

With more than 7 billion microorganisms in the soil, it’s no surprise we still have a lot to learn about them and their impact on the environment. A  West Virginia University researcher is uncovering critical information about these tiny organisms under our feet, which although small, can have a huge impact on the environment.

Ember Morrissey, assistant professor of  environmental microbiology in the  Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, received a $150,000 grant from National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology’s Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research program, known as EAGER, to increase understanding of the behavior of microorganisms in the soil to provide descriptions of microbial function that currently aren’t available.

Morrissey’s research will lay the groundwork needed to figure out how soil can be managed to address environment-related processes and issues, including global warming and climate change.

Of particular interest for Morrissey and other researchers is the ability to formulate more precise predictions of microorganisms’ carbon cycling, or how they use and create carbon, a key to combatting climate change.

“Soil stores a large fraction of the earth’s carbon – actually more carbon than the atmosphere and biosphere combined,” Morrissey explained. “Microorganisms break down and consume this carbon as they live and grow, converting it into the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

“Consequently, the activity of microorganisms in soil has the potential to alleviate or worsen climate change, so we need to form predictions regarding their activities.”

At the basis of Morrissey’s research: decomposition. Using this integral ecosystem process, Morrissey will investigate the role evolutionary history plays in determining microbial function.

The NSF Division of Environmental Biology supports fundamental research on populations, species, communities and ecosystems. More specifically, the EAGER program supports exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches that could lead to further research and discovery.

Morrissey’s proof of concept research project fits the bill.

“In the past, the study of complex microbial communities has been slowed by the methodological limitations,” Morrissey said. “This support has enabled us to use the most advanced approaches available.”

In addition to one research technician, Morrissey has one graduate student working in her lab and is seeking motivated undergraduate students to add to her team.

“There are still many unanswered questions about how microbial biodiversity influences ecosystem function,” she said. “This is a very exciting time as we can now quantify the activity of individual microbial species and begin to understand how they contribute to ecosystem-level processes.”